Comedy Equals Tragedy Plus Egypt: A Twitter Parody of the Arab Glenn Beck

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Egyptians pillory the controversial media mogul Tawfuk Okasha.

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Tawfik Okasha calls someone who had criticized him a Freemason. (YouTube)

"Comedy is tragedy plus time," according to a famous quotation attributed to the actor Carol Burnett, who must never have been to Egypt in a crisis.

The famed Egyptian humor, with its release-valve penchant for becoming funnier as times get tougher, has found its latest target in Tawfik Okasha, the hyper-nationalist, conspiracy-spouting owner of the Al Fara'een satellite channel, a man sometimes called "Egypt's Glenn Beck." Like Beck, Okasha claims to speak for the "silent majority," regularly warns of threats external and internal, sleeper cells and global conspiracies. Also like Beck, he is a fierce advocate of the old Mubarak order, of which he is a former member, having served in the rubber-stamp Parliament in Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

Okasha is also, apparently, a bit of a loon. He was allegedly the source of a recent (and apocryphal) rumor that the democratically elected Parliament was considering a "necrophilia law" that would allow husbands one last encounter within the first six hour's after a wife's death. He has labeled the Google exec and revolutionary icon Wael Ghoneim as, variously, an American agent, Palestinian-Lebanese, Iranian, Communist, Zionist, and especially Masonic. Freemasons, beyond even Zionists, are a special target for Okasha -- I haven't been able to figure out why -- purportedly bent on Egypt's destruction. During one particularly heated broadcast, in which Okasha warned of an impending date when Freemason power would reach its zenith, a frantic studio assistant interjected to point out that there was no such day as 13/13/2013.

Someone has struck back at Okasha in that distinctly Egyptian way: with humor, namely a parody Twitter feed, which has become a hit with Egypt's wired and English-speaking young liberals. Ostensibly, this is Okasha -- or Dr. Okasha, as he insists on being called -- dispatching paranoia, hyperbole, conspiracy, and narcissism in terrible English. Here's a recent tweet, with all the usual ingredients: you've got a reference to Freemasons, a dig at Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi and his supporters, followed by a bizarre and inscrutable reference to milk:



Here are some other favorites. "Ikhwan" is Muslim Brotherhood, "Shafik" is the Mubarak-allied presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, and KSA is Saudi Arabia.



One running joke of the feed has Okasha battling speculation that he uses Google translate because he can't actually speak English:

Whether it's this Okasha Twitter parody or the Mubarak jokes that proliferated under his rule, does so much humor seem to come out of Egypt, and especially during times of crisis? Maybe there's something particular to Egyptian culture that leads them to such hilarity under pressure. Allegedly, the Roman Empire banned Egyptian lawyers after they developed a reputation for cracking wise, something that continued long after Rome collapsed. "The joke is the devastating weapon which the Egyptians used against the invaders and occupiers," the Egyptian actor Kamal al-Shinnawi has said. "It was the valiant guerrilla that penetrated the palaces of the rulers and the bastions of the tyrants, disrupting their repose and filling their heart with panic."

Maybe it has something do with a proud culture living for decades under an emasculatingly cruel regime. "It's easier to make them look ridiculous," Mahmoud Salem told TheAtlantic.com's Anne Louie Sussman last year in discussing Egypt's unmistakable penchant for humor as a release valve and an act of subversion. "It's very effective," Salem explained, "because it breaks the fear barrier."

Here's a favorite from Issandr El Amrani's hilarious compilation of Mubarak jokes:

President Bill Clinton came to visit Mubarak in Egypt and was impressed by how popular he was and how easily he kept winning re-election. "Mubarak, he said, "I'm about to run for re-election. Could you send your advisers to Washington to help me run my campaign?" Mubarak says OK and sends his men to America to help campaign for Clinton. On election day, when all the ballots are tallied, the count is 90 percent in favor of electing Hosni Mubarak.

As Egyptian politics get more dire, its humor is keeping pace. During the 2011 protests that brought Mubarak's downfall, when Vice President Omar Suleiman accused demonstrators of serving "foreign agendas," the protesters started bringing blank notepads to Tahrir Square and quipping, "Whoops, I left my agenda at home."

Earlier today, when Ahmed Shafiq declared that he had won the presidential election (a day earlier, Mohammed Morsi had declared the same), setting up what could potentially be a difficult or even disastrous political battle to determine who really won the vote, Cairo-based editor Dalia Rabie responded in perfect Egyptian style. She tweeted, "This is truly a historic election. We elected two presidents."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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