By Amr Khalifa
“A girl writes she is every Egyptian young man’s dream. She thinks she is a visa to Kuwait.” via _El_haram .
Welcome to Twitter political humour, a humour that lays bare an Egypt consecutive regimes have sought to paint as rosier than its reality. Conflict, bloody and otherwise, has a deep impact on the emotional stability of the populous at large. A blow to the head, a thump to the heart, a punch to the soul: Egypt, in summary, over the last 43 months. But, through the darkest of times, the time tested saviour has been humour; particularly one of the political persuasion. Some may argue that political satire, caricature, jokes are a form of escapism but they are, in fact, a multi-faceted path to sanity in a nation such as Egypt.
There are a plethora of reasons why the average Egyptian suffers from varying degrees of depression, regardless of class, education or economic status. To begin with, the 25 January Revolution raised the ceiling of expectation to meteoric heights, in and of itself, that is a set up for emotional turmoil. The neo-holy trinity of Bread, Freedom and Social Equality, associated with the Revolution, is farfetched in a society where corruption eats away at the functional soul of the State machinery. Whereas idealism reigned in Tahrir [Square], eschewing violence as a revolutionary tactic, outside of it much blood was shed.
To the untrained eye, Egypt became known for bloodshed and instability as it did for the Pyramids and the Nile. Add to the mix a daily of electrical outages, sprinkle in the pressures of consistently increasing prices because of an economic gamble by Al-Sisi with reduction of government subsidies being the goal and you have a dark potpourri. The problems of the Egyptian milieu extend to the sectarian arena and continue on to a systematic failure in relation to women’s and children’s rights.
But the central dynamic of government repression and control unseen ‘since the days of Mohammed Ali’, according to a recent NY Times article , has left Egyptians with minute space for dissent. This is where political satire, humour and more specifically jokes come to the rescue as both respite and deconstruction of Egypt’s daily reality.
Hilarity, imbued with a high dosage of cynicism towards any and all subject matter pertaining to the State, is a thin, but important, strand of hope amidst this dark picture. In an Egypt where protest has, yet again, become verboten, Egyptians turn to political humour as a protest vote. Humour has unearthed issues as complex as sectarian splits within Egyptian society.
A particularly ferociously funny joke harkens back to Anwar El-Sadat’s rule, shortly after he uttered a dark political faux pas “I’m a Muslim leader of a Muslim nation”. It wasn’t long after that a sardonic joke made the rounds in Cairo: Sadat, the Coptic Pope and Sheikh of Al-Azhar were on a plane together, it started. After take-off, an assistant sidled up to Sadat and announced:
“Sir, we can only keep 2 of you on board so you will have to choose who goes.”
Sadat announced “I’m a fair a president and so I will ask each of you questions and whoever can’t answer will have to jump.”
Sadat turned to the Sheikh and asked “Which is the country known as ‘the country of the million martyrs?”
The Sheikh smiled and answered “Algeria.”
Sadat turned to the Pope and quizzed: ‘Can you tell me their names?’
By now you are likely laughing loudly; but, to successive Egyptian regimes, comedy is no laughing matter. It was no secret that during the Nasser, El-Sadat and Mubarak that Mukhabrat (Intelligence Services) would often be the source of such humour so as to flush out the opposition. After all, the thinking went, what is a police state without a police force ‘policing’ its citizenry.
Social media has radically increased humour’s tenor and reach. By both amplifying humour’s viral nature to the nth degree and increasing its biting nature due to the anonymity of the internet social media has, arguably, become a prime weapon of the oppressed.
Add to the equation exponential growth of the net in Egypt , where nearly one out of two is a user and you begin to understand the government’s quandary. While the creators of the humour are far from professional writers, a sense of emotional heartbeat of the nation brings them followers by the thousands.
With those followers comes influence and, naturally, laughs- a win/win proposition for all. “Don’t ask us where Egypt is headed. You go to sleep and when we drown we will wake you up,” via @7amaama . In Twitter universe, ratings are measured with re-tweets.
A successful tweet will garner upwards of 10-20 re-tweets, a hit will register in the 50-100 range, that tweet garnered 169 re-tweets. This is the danger for a regime struggling with its image, as authoritarian: the more a joke spreads, the more it incisively captures the national mood and uncovers an anger roiling beneath the surface. As it stands, the security apparatus recently brought in the editor-in-chief of the leading privately run newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm for fourteen hours of questioning over a proposed article. Clearly, the stark contrast between Al-Sisi’s stated goal of a new Egypt and old authoritarian techniques leave the hands of the security apparatus tied in relation to humour.
Mere hours after the Associated Press reported that Egyptian planes had, in fact, been bombing Islamist positions in Lybia, Twitter, based on a popular Ramadan TV ad, attacked via @kazakhelo.
“The plane your son rented and broke cost 20 million pounds –did you rent anything Haftar? (Lybian general) –yes. –See? He just told you he didn’t”. Some jokes, as with aforementioned, seek to uncover government lies and others are as explosive as the Molotov cocktails to which they refer.
“Two EGP of Molotovs may Allah bless you. In two separate packages please.” Via @_therockII . The government speaks of a more stable Egypt but the pungent joke says otherwise. Short stories of anger, precise stories of pain, truncated tales of fear are what these jokes emote. Even football is not immune to an injection of politics in its realm and the humour quickly latches on.
In a country where a beard has become, correctly or incorrectly, a symbol of political Islam it finds its way into the national comedy archive. “A guy sitting next to me watching the match says: ‘why has Shinawi grown out his beard?’ – looks like he is Muslim Brotherhood, Abou Tareika has ruined the kids.’’ Via @salamonty_.
No article offering a glimpse of modern Egyptian humour, and its dalliance with politics, could ever be complete without the phenomenon aka Bassem Youssef, popularly referred to as the Egyptian John Stewart. His success was so massive that it prompted Stewart to refer to himself as the American Bassem Youssef.
The heart surgeon turned political satirist kick started his explosive career on YouTube of all places. Shortly after the 25 January Revolution he entered into the fray with 5 minute short vignettes. At a most basic level, Youssef used reality based short video clips focusing on the pro-Mubarak camp that on their own merit were not funny per se. But in a magician’s hands a summary of the 25 January Revolution satirising a Mubarakist actor became ”Jan 25 revolution ended on the 27th. The revolutionaries left and boys and girls, sex and drugs-no, orgies- and Muslim brotherhood”. As Cairo roared with laughter, so soared a career but more importantly, so took flight a sense of liberation from societal norms of conservatism pervading the airwaves.
With the comedy, nearly all socio/political, there came a healthy dose of sexual innuendo. It wasn’t until Bassem, at this point, so famous he needed only one name, played with fire of caricaturing Egypt’s new president, one year later, that he became a mega star.
His mere appearance in a gargantuan top hat, caricaturing ex-president Morsi’s visit to a Pakistani university to accept an honorary degree, likely caused the sphinx to crack a smile . But satire and political humour, in a volatile nation, are akin to walking into a phalanx of central security officers while holding a white daisy.
Once the military man came to power and Bassem even thought of coming within 100 miles of imaginary red lines, the end came so swiftly that none knows, until this day, what hit him. “El Bernameg, in its current format, will not be allowed to continue…we tried to make people laugh…I’m tired of fearing for my own personal safety, that of my family and those around me.” So, in the end, political comedy, when met with the punishing force of reality, became socio/political tragedy.
Make no mistake, comedy persists and will continue to persist, on an individual level, as a loud protest, as a venting of anger, and as a necessary outreach to a smile in search of sanity. But be equally certain, the regime will seek to quell it: for a smile can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of the intelligent.
Amr Khalifa is a freelance journalist