It turns out that the Harlem Shake fad has one redeeming quality: It seems to annoy Islamists to no end.
The kids in the Pères Blancs high school in Tunis who filmed their version of the dance certainly didn't plan it that way. But once the clip went viral, they found themselves under attack by the minister of education himself, who went out of his way on a day off to accuse the students of immorality and "lack of respect for the institution of education. He ended his radio diatribe by threatening an "investigation" and "punishment for those responsible."
And that, really, was the epiphany for a new generation of protesters. Upon discovering that shakin' it for 30 seconds to an obscure remix of a Colombian Spanish tune (and bearing no resemblance to the actual Harlem Shake) drives Islamist-led government officials and their supporters absolutely nuts, young people in Tunisia knew what they had to do. The dance became a strange mark of political resistance. (Sigh.)
That was probably the day when the dance went from being a fad to a political statement -- in furry costumes and boxer shorts.
Various incidents occurred around the performances, most with little political significance -- students clashing with their school principals and so on. A more noteworthy clash occurred over a planned Harlem Shake gathering at the Bourguiba Language Institute, Tunis' best-known language school, which is located in one of the city's most conservative neighborhoods. But this time the malcontents were not the authorities but a dozen Salafi men and women who attempted to prevent students at the institute from indulging in the dance. One of the men, wearing military gear and carrying a Molotov cocktail he never used, told the dancers that he wanted to prevent them "from sinning, as you are dancing while the Israelis are killing our brothers in Palestine." The students responded with shouts of "dégage!" ("go away"), a bit of fisticuffs ensued, and then the Salafis departed, leaving the students to film their video.
In a similar fashion, Egyptian activists also somehow figured out that their government seriously disliked the dance -- and proceeded to milk that knowledge for all that it's worth. After the first "Shakers" were arrested for dancing in their underwear late last month, activists upped the ante and organized a Harlem Shake of their own in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood. MB officials tried to put a good face on things, at least at first. "Any peaceful form of demonstration is welcomed," said spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan. He then qualified his remark by adding that he doubted that the event would remain peaceful: "These matters always lead to violence which is unacceptable." The event went ahead anyway, and ended without event. There were as many journalists on the scene as dancers.
The choice of location is quite interesting in itself. After all, the Muslim Brotherhood has no official governmental affiliation. The dance could have been organized near any of the government ministries, the presidential palace, or even the headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm. But the dancers chose to go to what many view as the real source of political power in Egypt: the opaque and unregistered organization that is the Muslim Brotherhood. "The event is in front of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters because we know their office is ruling the country," stated one of the organizers.
In retaliation, a handful of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, in an attempt to mock the opposition, also recorded their own clip, wearing homemade masks that depicted various opposition leaders. Sadly for them, one of them was promptly identified and mercilessly mocked on social media. The lead character in the video was ultimately compelled to apologize [in Arabic] to his fellow Muslim Brothers, admitting the video might have been "shocking and inappropriate for many."
Now, what sort of real political change is likely to come from a Harlem Shake protest? Zero. Imagining that dancing for 30 seconds could produce any sort of serious result is naïve at best. Unlike a genuine protest, a quick Shake barely sends any message to the state and the public: The number of people involved is a few dozen at best, and the people who watch the Youtube clips are hardly the general public.
It is, however, an effective way of telling off The (Islamist) Man and making a statement. In this sense, the overreaction authorities played right into the hands of the dancers.
And if we factor in the age of most of the Harlem Shakers in transition countries, we realize that this is probably, for a large number of them, their first act of political rebellion. Even if it was in costume and underwear.
Mohamed El Dahshan is the Egypt blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.
Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Transitions is the group blog of the Democracy Lab channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Legatum Institute.