After months of political unrest, Tabei says he and his friends see the “Harlem Shake” meme not only as a platform for their message of reform, but as a way to “raise the hopes and spirits” of an increasingly frustrated opposition movement.
Tabei isn’t alone, either. As the nonsensical trend passes its saturation point in the West, it’s evolving into a distinctly more political phenomenon in both Egypt and Tunisia, where students and opposition movements have re-appropriated Baauer’s bass-heavy anthem as a rallying cry for reform — much to the chagrin (and perhaps befuddlement) of conservative authorities.
This is certainly a case where the medium is the message.
While the excessive virality of the “Harlem Shake” and Gangnam Style can make them all too pervasive in Western media, dissidents like Mahmoud Tabei and his compatriots raise hope as they appropriate the web’s tools and culture to promote social and political change.
Of course, the fact that these gatherings lead to arrests and tear gas, as in the case of 75 Tunisian high school students, show just how much work still needs to be done in the name of an open political and civil society in much of the Middle East.
Ultimately, though, Tabei remains realistic about the chances of a viral video resulting in any substantive change. After having already seen seven of his friends killed since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the teenager is markedly disillusioned with his country’s revolution. Publicity aside, he says a fundamental goal of his group’s “Harlem Shake” movement is to simply build morale — a way to “refresh our minds in order to continue with our larger struggle.”
That last point is where the “Harlem Shake” protests become fundamentally different from many other acts of civil disobedience: mixing fun and freedom with political expression.