“Harlem Shake” becomes symbol of protest

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YouTube phenomenon becomes latest tool for protest in North Africa.


A dance craze that began in an Australian teenager’s bedroom landed on the doorstep of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on February 28th , with dozens of protesters doing the Harlem Shake outside the ruling Islamists’ Cairo headquarters.

Around 70 protesters, mostly men, performed the dance after chanting slogans against the Islamists, who had propelled President Mohamed Mursi to his election victory last June.

Known as the “Harlem Shake”, the viral meme has already spawned hundreds of copycats. Each video begins with a lone dancer – usually wearing a mask or helmet – dancing alone to the song Harlem Shake by US musician Baauer whilst surrounded by people seemingly not paying attention. When the bass of the song drops, however, the video switches to the entire crowd doing a convulsive dance.

The chaotic pelvis-thrusting dance has been mimicked across the world after a group of Australian teenagers uploaded a video of themselves dancing the Harlem Shake in early February.

Youths in Egypt and Tunisia have taken up the dance as a form of protest against Islamists, two years after uprisings in both countries toppled veteran dictators but brought in divisive Islamist-led governments.

“Down with the supreme guide’s rule,” the protesters chanted after finishing the dance, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood’s religious leader Mohammed Badie.

“The message is clear,” said Farid Sayyed, one of the organisers.

“We are against the policies of the Brotherhood. Their guidance bureau (or ruling council) dictates government policy, not the presidency. The revolution continues.”

Several riot police trucks and a fire engine were deployed at the Islamists’ headquarters, which protesters had stormed and attempted to torch in December after Mursi adopted extensive powers he has since repealed.

But the  protest remained peaceful, with some dancers arriving dressed as Islamists and another wearing a Mickey Mouse mask.

Although it was the first such performance outside the Brotherhood’s headquarters, the dance craze had already arrived in Egypt.

A group of Egyptians posted videos of themselves on YouTube doing the Harlem Shake in front of the Giza pyramids, with one of them, wearing white underwear and a bow tie, dancing while riding a camel.

Previously, police said they arrested four students who stripped to their underwear and performed the dance in a quiet middle class Cairo neighbourhood, after shocked residents tried to assault the students.

In Tunisia, students and radical Islamists scuffled on February 28th after the students tried to film themselves dancing in the city of Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the Arab Spring revolts, with similar scuffles taking place in the capital.

A number of social media sites run by Salafists and other Islamist groups have denounced the Harlem Shake as indecent, with participants smoking, dancing wildly and simulating sexual acts.

Ten thousand people promised to show up in front of Tunisia’s education ministry on March 1st  to perform a protest version of the Harlem Shake, but only a few dozen braved the rain to do so.

Performances over the previous week had infuriated ultra-conservative Muslims with their smoking, wild dancing and simulation of sexual acts, and led to punch-ups with them and clashes with police.

It has become a symbol of the cultural battle raging between secularists and Islamists for the soul of a nation widely viewed as the Arab world’s most progressive.

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