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.

"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."

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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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