Laugh, O Revolution: Humor in the Egyptian Uprising

"Photographs from Tahrir of people carrying hilarious signs went viral within minutes of posting," observed Adel Iskandar, 33, a media scholar and lecturer at Georgetown University. Sharing a laugh, often in real time, created "a sense of solidarity and camaraderie among those who supported the cause." Who could not identify with the simple "Leave, my arm hurts"? Or, as the days wore on and on, "Leave, I want to shower/see my wife/shave/get married."

The jokes themselves often played on or through new media and its tropes. A faked "Installing Freedom" screen grab showed files being copied from a folder labeled /tunisia, overlaid with the error message, "Cannot install Freedom. Please remove 'Mubarak' and try again." (A later version of that joke announces "Installation freedom has finished successfully.") While Mubarak is rumored to have never sent an email in his 82 years, @HosniMubarak appeared on Twitter on January 25, joshing with the shabab (youth) like an old pro. The next day, amid (false) reports that the Mubaraks had fled to London, a follower inquired to the fake presidential account after his family. "They're fine, thank you for asking. Gamal just checked in at the Ritz on foursquare," @HosniMubarak politely replied. Son and heir apparent Gamal, whose @GMubarak profile boasts "My Daddy owns Egypt," quickly materialized, as did wife @SuzanneMobarak. On February 4, amid some of the worst crackdowns on journalists in Egypt, @HosniMubarak tried to drum up a little extra cash. "I have 3 video cameras, 2 still cameras, 5 microphones, and 7 journalists for sale," he tweeted. "They are all labelled 'Al Jazeera'."

As the real Mubarak shuffled his cabinet, his new officials succumbed to ritual sacrifice on the Twitter pyre. Activists satirized former Interior Minister Habib El Adly (@HabibElAdly), Vice President Omar Soleiman (@OmarSoleiman), even Leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Mohamed Tantawi (@ChiefTantawi), whose profile describes him as "Kicking ass, taking names, and wearing decorations with more colors than you can find in a pack of Skittles."

Despite @ChiefTantawi's tweets to the contrary ("Release of prisoners, disbanding Sate [sic] Security, firing cabinet and a civil government - nice list of demands, would you like a unicorn too??"), the mere existence of his fake account signaled that something had changed in Egypt, where the widely revered military has traditionally been satire-proof. As'ad AbuKhalil, 50, an academic who blogs as the Angry Arab, noted that one of the few times that red line has ever been crossed was in the wake of the 1967 defeat by Israel, when cynicism in Egypt ran at an all-time high. Then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser was so concerned by the public mockery of his troops that he gave a speech warning of the damage that can be done to the community by jokes.

Not every punchline was contemporary. One that was circulating on email dredged up ancient animosities:

Dear Egyptian demonstrators,

Please do not damage the pyramids. We will not rebuild.

-The Jews

"Humour is the default response to everything in Egypt including state repression," says Egyptian-British journalist and blogger Sarah Carr, 34, whose "A letter received by our agony aunt" likened Egyptians' relationship with Mubarak to that of an oppressed wife trapped in a loveless marriage.

Dear Agony Aunt,

After 30 years with my husband I feel like I need a new start, but he doesn't feel the same way, and now I can't get rid of him. [...]

He soon developed a taste for the husband role however and within weeks was preventing me from meeting in groups larger than five and locking me up in our bedroom for weeks without telling anyone where I was if I criticized his taste in shirts.

Carr reflected, "Interestingly, the tougher circumstances get, the more the jokes increase, which explains why Tahrir Square was essentially a comedy explosion."

As events appeared to crescendo -- particularly the evening of what was expected to be Mubarak's resignation speech -- the jokes rose to a fever pitch.

As the scheduled hour of his speech came and went, Twitter users volunteered possible #ReasonsWhyMubarakIsLate, which was trending at the top of Twitter. Explanations ranged from @hosnimobarak's "I'm eating my KFC meal" to one user's dig at pro-government media's refusal to fully cover the protests: "he's watching egyptian tv...he still doesn't know it's his last day in office." But as several "Mubarak is high" animated videos later chronicled, he refused to step down. Utah-based fiction writer @angelaperry tweeted, "Mubarak. Dude. Egyptians INVENTED writing on the wall. You really should learn to read it."

At any point throughout the protests, did the regime fight funny with funny? Longtime Cairo resident Issandr El Amrani observed that despite once displaying a genial if unsophisticated wit, perhaps comparable to that of George W. Bush, by end times, Mubarak had "too much of a sense of importance and indispensability to have a sense of humor." The government made a few lame attempts, according to Professor Iskandar, such as a cartoon in state newspaper depicting a spoiled rich kid protesting for higher wages. But, for the most part, the regime showed a deep unawareness of its own unintentional irony. Often, says 34-year-old Marwa Elnaggar, a writer and activist, "the events and official statements were more laughable than any jokes we made up." She compiled a list of "Laugh With the Revolution" moments, such as Suleiman's polite request to thousands of newly escaped prisoners to kindly return to their respective prisons.
Mubarak's eventual departure on February 11 signaled neither the end of strikes nor the end of jokes in Egypt. A wave of quips still whiz around SMS and Twitter, hinting at the domino effect of Egypt's success. "After 'Victory Friday' in Tunisia & 'Liberation Friday' in Egypt Gaddafi has decided to abolish all Fridays," read one. Another: "Dear Arab people: What happens in Egypt stays in Egypt. Sincerely, Arab dictators".

Says Iskandar, who is originally from Cairo, "Not only can I not imagine a revolution in Egypt without jokes, I cannot imagine anything in Egypt without jokes. The day Egyptians stop joking or laughing is the day they have nothing to worry about."

During that happy night of celebration following Mubarak's resignation, a musician led a crowd of protesters in "Laugh, O Revolution," a call-and-response tune. "Laugh, O Revolution," he sings. Whistling, clapping and waving the Egyptian flag, the revolutionaries happily shouted back the chorus: "Ha ha ha."

Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

An Eerie Tour of Chernobyl's Wasteland

"Do not touch the water. There is nothing more irradiated than the water itself."


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Global

Just In