Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 October 2019

They love a joke in Egypt - but where will the laughter stop?

In a divided country, gently mocking the leadership may be better than the alternative.

During last year's 18-day uprising against Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians charmed the world with playful protest placards and clever Twitter jokes. But now the humour is turning bitter as the country continues to struggle under new leadership.

Last year's uprising was dubbed the "laughing revolution" as jests displayed in protests, many in English, went viral on the internet and were picked up by foreign media.

"Mubarak leave, I need a haircut," said one, commenting on how long the demonstrations had continued. "Leave! My arm hurts," pleaded another. These jokes helped impart a spirit of hope to the events in Tahrir Square.

But in the months since then, the prevalent jokes have changed: joyous knocks on Mr Mubarak gave way first to reflections of growing distrust of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and now to ever-sharper barbs about Islamists.

Before Egypt's first free presidential election, one circulating joke said officials had found a poly-partisan solution that kept the three candidates with ties to the old regime in government: "Amr Mousa will run the country on Saturday and Sunday; Ahmed Shafiq on Monday and Tuesday; Omar Suleiman on Wednesday and Thursday. And every Friday the people will hold a 'million-man march' to bring them all down."

That expressed the widespread worry that the presidency would be handed to whichever candidate could make the best deal with the army.

Mohammed Morsi, who was finally confirmed as the new president, had been seen as a weak, unlikely candidate. He was actually the Muslim Brotherhood's second choice, given the nomination after another Brotherhood leader was disqualified.

For the next two months, most people referred to Mr Morsi simply as "stebn" (the spare tyre). Tyres were held aloft in the crowd at his campaign speeches. Internet memes featuring Mr Morsi and a tyre were shared relentlessly on social media channels.

In the early hours of the end-of-campaign moratorium on electioneering, one image circulated widely: a photo of a tyre rolling down an empty street. "Morsi is seen violating the moratorium and campaigning solo on a Cairo street," the caption said.

Since his swearing in, the tone of jokes about him has darkened considerably. A popular recent cartoon showed a man and woman talking, under a caption reading "Morsi has freed many prisoners who were terrorists". The woman baits the man, saying: "Of course, your son had to be a revolutionary. If he'd been a smuggler or a terrorist, he'd be with us now."

Ask any of the revolutionary youth which candidate they supported in the first round of elections, and chances are slim that they will mention Mr Morsi.

Indeed, many activists remain doubtful that Mr Morsi will grant Egyptians any of the civil rights they have demanded.

True, political satire and parody have been allowed a greater voice than in Mr Mubarak's day. The wildly popular satirical news show El Bernameg, with Bassem Youssef, pokes fun at presidential problems, for example.

Today academics are collecting post-revolution jokes as a barometer of public opinion towards the government and about the future. What they are finding is a growing public disappointment.

Those who protested in Tahrir Square now say they have seen little political change: "Everything is the same," a one-liner says, "only now with beards."

Egyptians have a long history as the region's funny men. In many other Arab countries, Egyptians are known as "ibn nukta", or "the son of jokes". The sheer number of jokes from Egypt reveals the importance of humour in daily life.

Public criticism of the president can still bring jail time, a Mubarak-era practice that reared its head last month when Islam Afifi, the editor of Al Dostour, was accused of insulting the president and arrested. And so the tradition of quietly sharing jokes with friends at a cafe remains one of the few outlets for criticism.

But now, with fewer restrictions on speech, comedians have put politics back on the set list, for the first time in 60 years.

"I didn't do political jokes because you couldn't under Mubarak, but lately I look at the news and poke fun. With so much going on you need to make light of an awful situation," said Rami Boraie, a comedian and doctor.

Under Egypt's previous three presidents, with political expression heavily censored, mocking political elites became its own form of resistance. For people with few rights, being able to make light of oppressors, even in private, became precious.

In the 1960s, president Gamal Abdel Nasser was rumoured to have sent his secret police to tell jokes about him and gauge the reaction. There are even jokes about this rumour.

In comparison to the charismatic leadership of Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mr Mubarak was considered a country bumpkin, lacking the intelligence to run a country.

Three decades ago, when Mr Mubarak was new to the presidency, one popular joke ran like this: "They asked the presidents of Egypt to name the most difficult year in their lives. Gamal Abdel Nasser thought and said, 'the year of the Naksa [setback] in 1967'. Anwar Sadat thought and said, 'the year of the Ramadan War, 1973'. But Mubarak immediately said, 'my second year of high school'."

As much as Mr Mubarak was mocked, early in his presidency, for being uneducated and corrupt, he was later ridiculed for his sheer tenacity in holding onto power.

An oft-repeated pre-revolution joke goes like this: "Protesters gather and march towards the palace calling for the overthrow of the president. Mubarak, sitting in his palace, hears the commotion and asks Ahmed Nazif, his prime minister, 'what is all the noise about?' Trying to put it to him kindly, Nazif says: 'Sir, the Egyptian people are here to bid you farewell'. Mubarak looks at him and says, 'Why? Where are they going?'"

While Egyptians focused their jokes on Mr Mubarak personally, depicting him as out of touch and stubborn, they seem hesitant to differentiate Mr Morsi from the Islamist group whose on-the-ground clout put him in the presidency.

Just as Mr Mubarak was mocked as not being smart enough for the job, so Mr Morsi, the spare tyre, is simply not the man for the job.

Other jokes focus on Islamists and the continued lack of political progress, despite broad promises from the new president. So far, the gags settle on targeting

Mr Morsi's inability to solve water shortages and rolling electricity blackouts, not on him personally.

One joke that circulated during last month's electricity shortages: "Upset at all the negativity about the Freedom and Justice Party, Morsi asks Egyptians: 'What have you seen from the Muslim Brotherhood to hate them?' Egyptians respond: 'Nothing - in the dark we can't see anything'."

Egypt is a deeply religious country, but the love of a good joke and willingness to criticise a so far unproven president show that Egyptians can make political choices based on more than simple belief.

If Mr Morsi doesn't deliver on his promises, a disillusioned population may soon be calling him something far more insulting than "the spare tyre".

Where the gag goes from there would be anyone's guess.

 

Megan Detrie is an independent journalist based in Cairo

On Twitter: @megandetrie

Updated: November 17, 2012 04:00 AM

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