Egypt: Joking to Survive Political Turmoil

By: Mona Abdel-Fadil, PhD Fellow at IKOS, University of Oslo.

The Egyptian uprising against Mubarak and the former regime has all along been accompanied by social and political critique in the form of humour. From funny posters held by demonstrators, to satirical programming or political caricatures – photos or videos of which are often being circulated and shared on Facebook and YouTube. Yet perhaps the greatest humorous efforts are being made in the ‘old fashioned’ way, the transmission of jokes face to face. The presidential elections have not been exempted from satirical ridicule, rather the contrary.

For instance, in reference to each presidential candidate having a symbol attached to their campaign, ‘fake’ political symbols or parodies soon featured in everyday discussions. The mock symbol for Morsi (Muslim Brotherhood/ Freedom and Justice Party) was a tire. And was referred to as the ‘spare tire’ and symbolizing the fact that Morsi was only a backup for the MB’s first candidate Al-Shater, who was dismissed from the presidential race, on grounds of legal formalities. Likewise, the mock symbol for Shafiq (former Prime Minister) was a garment, a pullover, a reference to Shafiq always dressing in pullovers, be it in campaign photos or other public appearances. Shafiq’s pullover has been talked about as ‘elegant dressing’ that is likely to sway voters who care about appearances in his favour. Yet, jokes about his wearing a pullover in Egypt’s summer heat during the presidential campaign have also led to insinuations that Shafiq is cold-blooded since he can endure this attire in Egypt’s hottest months. This latter interpretation can be interpreted as a critique of Shafiq’s inability or perhaps lack of will to stop the battle of the camel (violent attack of demonstrators in Tahrir in 2011) which took place while Shafiq was Prime Minister. In effect, a reference to Shafiq’s cold bloodedness, is actually an allegation of him being complacent in the killing of his people.

When it became clear that Morsi and Shafiq had made it to the presidential runoff, jokes that reflected the choice Egyptians were faced with immediately surfaced and circulated like wild fire. One joke set the following scenario: Hosni Mubarak dies, and Shafiq who is a widower marries Mubarak’s widow Suzan Mubarak, and swush Gamal Mubarak’s son inherits Egypt’s presidency. This joke voices the common critique against Shafiq, that he will be precisely like his predecessor Hosni Mubarak, and that there therefore will be no democracy under his reign. The black humour in this joke also points to the assumption that with Shafiq nothing whatsoever will be gained, epitomized by Gamal Mubarak inheriting the presidential position, despite his father being ousted or even dead. With recent speculations about Hosni Mubarak being between life and death, this joke has only gained momentum.

Another joke that circulated immediately after the preliminary presidential results were out, was the following: isn’t it better with four years in a pullover than a life- time in a gallabiya? This joke indicates the assumption of MB sceptics, that the MB will not leave power once they gain it, and that Egyptians will be forced to wear modest and traditional attire for life. The implication is also that Shafiq will only stay in power for the four-year term. Some Egyptians believe that Shafiq’s advanced age will ensure this. However, sceptics of Shafiq do not believe this to be the case – and fear he may simply instate someone to be his successor – the most sardonic of these future scenarios is as previously mentioned that Gamal Mubarak will fill this role

Ridicule was promptly in the heels of two commercials broadcasted on Egyptian State TV, and launched right before the presidential runoff. The advertisements depicted a foreign spy eagerly taking notes of what Egyptians at a café had to voice of frustrations and critique of the transitional period in Egypt. The spy expresses his interest with ‘really?’ several times. ‘Really?’ has since become an iconic reference to the commercials used frequently and ironically in verbal exchanges.  In addition, several parodies of the entire commercials can be found on YouTube, even if the actual commercials were swiftly pulled from State TV following public critique. The planting of fear of foreign agents easily blurs with foreign media, since these two have been used interchangeably by the Mubarak regime, particularly in the ‘chaos narrative’ where foreign agents and media are accused of instigating riots and demonstrations (chaos) in Egypt, with the purpose of destabilizing Egypt. The brilliant stroke of this narrative, is that it is the regime (be it Mubarak or SCAF) who will reinstate order and stability.  Still, the timing of the commercials is interesting. The advertisements can also be interpreted as an attempt to curb Egyptians’ in their expressions of dissatisfaction with the election processes to foreign media, to avoid international scrutiny.

Recent events, with both Morsi and Shafiq claiming victory, official presidential election results being postponed, a new decree giving the military extended powers of arresting civilians, and declaration of the parliament as unconstitutional only add to the political turmoil of Egypt’s transition after the ousting of Mubarak and increasingly instigates fear that the military will not step down from power. While these developments are worrying and no doubt enrage many Egyptians, as can be seen in the tens of thousands who participated in demonstrations in Tahrir this Friday – my guess is that these events will also spark a chain of new satirical jokes. Faced between the choice of despair and laughter, many Egyptians continue to employ comic relief to overcome their fears and despair over the political turmoil in their country. In this sense, little has changed in Egypt. Laughter is a much a form of survival now as it was under Mubarak…