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Send in the clowns: poking fun at Egypt's army falls flat

Despite activist efforts, Egyptians have a seemingly unshakable faith in the military as an institution.

Clown activism made its Cairo debut this month. During the month-long CirCairo international circus festival, an Amsterdam theatre collective called RebelAct introduced Egypt's main metropolis to the use of clowning and play as political activism.

RebelAct is well known in Europe. Members show up at immigration detention centres dressed as fairies, or go to protests as painfully obvious "undercover police".

But their sense of humour got lost in translation in Cairo. The idea of using quasi-comic civil resistance to point out and even disrupt police actions just didn't work.

The plan was for RebelAct members to march through the streets wearing military fatigues decorated with brightly coloured pompoms and hand-sewn patches.

Army uniform is a mainstay of the Clandestine Insurgent Clown Army (CICA), a kind of umbrella group for activists, of which RebelAct is an offshoot. But in Cairo, organisers worried that the public would be unlikely to find any humour in the costumes. A half-hour before the performance, RebelAct members were asked to take the uniforms off and to stay within the circus festival's grounds, a decision that transformed them from activists into mere children's party clowns.

This was not the first time inventive activism found an unreceptive audience in Egypt, particularly on the topic of the still well-respected military.

Last year Kazeboon (Arabic for "liars"), a loose grouping of activists, began to project video images showing military violence against protesters in public squares throughout the country. The group wanted to offer Egyptians a version of events different from the one on state television, which greatly favoured the military and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

But far from the Tahrir Square epicentre of protests, local people, fearing clashes in their neighbourhoods, tried to stop activists from screening the images.

Indeed, despite activist efforts, Egyptians have a seemingly unshakable faith in the military as an institution. A Gallup survey in April suggests that the military's popularity had dropped only slightly since June 2011, from 95 per cent to 89 per cent.

All this shows that middle-class revolutionaries and activists need better methods to deliver their messages to ordinary Egyptians in the lower socio-economic classes.

Kazeboon's screenings seemed ingenious when planned, but in practice the message was lost because residents feared unrest more than being lied to by state television.

Creative protest has become a popular buzzword among activists globally, largely through groups such as CICA. Starting in the UK in 2005 at the G8 summit protests, "clown armies" have popped up all over Europe and the US. Such groups have run satirical election campaigns, and RebelAct hosts an annual on-land boat parade to mock the commercialisation of Amsterdam's gay-pride canal parade.

Some attempts at protest seem merely silly. In July, six clowns protested at a zoo in Seattle, in the US, over conditions for elephants.

In Egypt, RebelAct held a two-day workshop meant to give would-be activist clowns the tools to launch their own creative resistance. To learn more, I attended workshops in improvisation and physical theatre, where basic elements of professional clowning were combined with activist techniques.

Clown army recruits are taught to think on their feet, but what Egyptians can do with these techniques is anyone's guess.

A simple game of wizard, dwarf, giant (a vigorous equivalent of rock, paper, scissors) was used to remind the students that if they don't vary their tactics, they will wind up head-to-head with police who have anticipated their next move.

True enough, but Muslim Brotherhood supporters, for example, are unlikely to challenge anti-Mohammed Morsi protesters to a game of wizard, dwarf, giant any time soon.

Ideas for resistance are plentiful in Cairo, but implementation is a problem.

Egypt's class divide means that protesters must find ways to approach much of the population in cultural and social terms that will be effective and not threatening, as the Kazeboon screenings were.

Protest tactics of this type have now established themselves in the West, but it seems unlikely that Egypt's activists will send in the clown army anytime soon.


Megan Detrie is an independent journalist based in Cairo

On Twitter: @megandetrie

Updated: October 26, 2012 04:00 AM