Laugh, O Revolution: Humor in the Egyptian Uprising

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Protesters deployed satire, irony, and outright mockery against the government

Revolutions can be messy. They can be tragic. As long as the Internet is working, they can be tweeted. And, as Egyptians demonstrated during their 18 days of protest, they can also be funny.

In the English-language press, the post-game wrap-up of Egypt's uprising has largely focused on the role of new media tools (as well as old ones, namely satellite television), which allowed people to connect, organize and inform. Absent from most of this analysis was an examination of one of the oldest and most subversive political tools there is: humor. The steady stream of comedy flowing throughout the square functioned much as Twitter and Facebook did: to build community, strengthen solidarity, and provide a safe, thug-free outlet for Egyptians to defy the regime.

Parody, Linda Hutcheons has written, repeats something familiar, but with a "potentially revolutionary" difference. For Egyptians, did it get any more familiar than Hosni Mubarak, whose rule lasted 29 long years? Whose Dracula-like face peered down from signs and framed official photographs all over the country (photographs that seemed to freeze him in the Twilight Zone of his mid-fifties, where his hair color still remains)? Who greeted them every morning from their state television and state-owned newspapers? As Issandr El Amrani asked in his eerily prescient article on Mubarak jokes written for Foreign Policy two months before the revolution began: What would happen if you spent three decades making fun of the same man?

To Mahmoud Salem, an English-language blogger who goes by the name Sandmonkey (because it "makes white people uncomfortable"), those 30 years of non-stop derision -- including an Onion-esque fake news website, El Koshary Today -- set the stage for the confrontation that began January 25. Directly confronting the regime, he told me, would have been a "stupid move."

"It's easier to make them look ridiculous," Salem said. But is humor, as some suggest, a substitute for effective political action? "It's very effective," he insisted, "because it breaks the fear barrier."

That barrier began to fall not long after Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali resigned office on January 14. Egyptians roared into the street, kicking off their revolution with chants of "Hosni Mubarak, the plane is waiting!" a nod to Ben Ali's embarrassingly swift liftoff to Saudi Arabia.

The longer Mubarak stayed, the more the jokes piled up, much like the growing mound of trash in the center of Tahrir Square. Protesters renamed both the garbage pile and the toilets renamed "National Democratic Party headquarters" -- a reference to Mubarak's party, the real headquarters of which was destroyed by protesters. When Vice President Omar Suleiman denounced the protesters' "foreign agendas," young people showed up to the square with plain blank notebooks, Salem says. "Whoops," they told one another, "I left my 'agenda' at home."

When state television accused protesters of being foreign agents, paid with fistfuls of Euros and meals from Kentucky Fried Chicken, one protester filmed his comrades enjoying their "KFC": humble sandwiches of bread and cheese. And that $100 bribe? "I transferred it to Switzerland," one grinning man tells the camera, falafel in hand.

As Egyptians took to social media to spread news from the demonstrations and encourage others to join them, the humor rampant in the street made it into those social media dispatches as well. Many tweeted in English, and thanks to translation software and human translators, the whole world could get in on the joke.

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Anna Louie Sussman is a New York-based freelance writer for major U.S. magazines and newspapers, and the senior editor and writer for womenintheworld.org.

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