For John Khalil and his four friends, the idea seemed simple at first: They would take to Cairo's crowded metro stations and play popular folk songs for free to lighten the daily load of the city's marginalized metro riders.
"Our first goal was that people would be happy," Khalil, a 24-year-old engineering student, told Al-Monitor. Most metro riders cannot afford the cost of a concert, Khalil reasoned, while taking Egypt's public transit can be a taxing daily chore. So his band, Metro Tune, would bring the music and cheer to the people in a city facing tough economic and political times.
Implementing the idea, however, has been far from simple — or always safe. For the last two years, Metro Tune has struggled with security and transportation authorities to avoid arrest and attain the permits required to assemble. Egypt’s 2013 anti-protest law bans unsanctioned gatherings of 10 or more people, a natural byproduct of what Metro Tune set out to do. In March, after nearly two years of trying, the authorities at last granted the group a one-time permit to perform — and they have no idea if and when it will happen again.
Metro Tune’s experience shows just how hard it can be for everyday Egyptians to take initiative amid the state's ongoing security crackdown and the rise in attacks on police and public places on a scale not seen in years in Egypt, including small bombs in the metro. Now, with attention on Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's upward of $300 billion plans to develop a new capital, Metro Tune's message is: Don't neglect Cairo's millions of existing public transit users.
The estimated 4 million people who ride the metro daily feel the country's political changes acutely during their commute. Since the military ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013, officials have kept the Tahrir Square metro stop, also know as Anwar Sadat, closed and increased the police presence in the stations, citing security threats. Sadat was one of Cairo’s two main transfer hubs, and its closure has made everything even more crowded and complicated. Now the remaining hub, Al-Shohaddah (Martyrs, called Hosni Mubarak before the revolution), is entirely overloaded. The source of the small bombs in the metro remains unknown, and official and media reports often attribute them to Muslim Brotherhood “terrorists.”
The band held their first metro show in June 2013, just weeks before Morsi's ouster. Khalil told Al-Monitor he was partly inspired by the men who used to play Egyptian music legends like Mohammed Darwish and Sheikh Imam in the streets for money, their music becoming part of Cairo’s daily soundtrack. Only in this case, the five bandmates — four engineering and one computer science student from different parts of Cairo — were not in it for the money.
Instead, in a city where most people cannot afford tickets to a place like Cairo’s opera house — let alone the suit and tie the opera requires of men to enter — Metro Tune wanted to add something besides the omnipresent “techno-shaabi” or “mahraganat” songs to the city’s daily soundtrack.
For many, the Cairo metro is a welcome respite from the city's chronic traffic aboveground and seen as one of the few government initiatives that reliably work. But the Middle East’s only metro system is also running on shaky ground. The chronically mismanaged Ministry of Transport has neglected the maintenance of the existing infrastructure. The increasing congestion of riders and vendors with the heat and sexual harassment it brings make the metro a necessary if unpleasant part of the daily grind for many. The first of two metro lines opened in 1987. Three years later, the government added two women-only cars in 1990 in response to widespread harassment.
State subsidies have always kept the metro affordably low, and its rate is currently just one Egyptian pound (about $0.13) per ride. Now, ongoing and expensive expansion projects, funded in part by Japan, France and the European Union, are expected to add four new lines and increase the daily commuters to 16 million by 2020, according to the Cairo Metro Authority.
The band’s first show on June 20, 2013, at the Opera metro stop attracted a small audience and little else. Then they took the train one stop to Mohamed Naguib, where a crowd gathered and blocked a stairwell and security told everyone to disperse. At first, the group was reluctant to make a Facebook group, Khalil said, worrying that prior announcement of their shows would make it easier for authorities to shut them down. Over the following months, Metro Tune held seven more shows, each attracting more followers and local media attention.
In February 2014, Metro Tune held a show at the Rod al-Farag station. Over a hundred people came and even more joined the audience once the show started — their biggest turnout yet, Khalil said.
Soon after they began to play, Metro security descended on the concert and threatened the band, Khalil told Al-Monitor. The police knew each of their names, Khalil recalled, and the dates and locations of the band’s past shows. "We told them we weren't revolutionaries, just engineers," Khalil said.
A month later, on April 21, the band returned to the metro with their drums and guitars in tow. This time, the venue was the Nasser metro stop, announced via Facebook just hours before. Fans and bystanders again gathered, and metro security quickly descended. Scuffles broke out, Khalil said, and they were threatened with arrest under the anti-protest law that forbids the gathering of large groups. The band was not detained in the end, but left shaken nonetheless.
For the next year, Metro Tune did not perform at metro stations. Instead, the band tried to do what authorities wanted: attain a license. They shuffled between departments and ministries, each department claiming another was responsible, Khalil said. After months of phone calls, promises and no real responses, Metro Tune at last received a permit to perform in March — but just once. The March 31 show at the Opera metro stop attracted an enthusiastic crowd and no problems. Now they are waiting to see if authorities will let them sing in the metro again.
Nagwa Darwish, spokesperson for the transportation police, told Tahrir News that the Interior Ministry was “not against any work of art … but the security situation is not stable, and we worry about any mass gatherings in the metro, because it could provide the opportunity for any terrorist or illegal act.”
As of now, Metro Tune is waiting to hear back about their latest request to perform in the metro.