Super Mario on the Nile: Egypt's Protesters Try Western Memes

Why Egyptian activists are using a Nintendo character, and the Harlem Shake, to mock their president


Sometimes, the most effective form of protest is the kind that appeals to the bizarre sensibilities of bored internet users.

For several months now, Egypt has been roiled by protests and riots against President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that backs him. The protests have grown deadly in some areas of the country: Clashes between protesters and police in Port Said, near the Suez Canal, have left six people dead since Sunday. And that's after weeks and weeks of nonstop protests against what opposition activists perceive as Morsi's mismanagement of the country and his undemocratic consolidation of power.

But recently there's been a new wave of offbeat, almost whimsical viral videos released by Morsi opponents who prefer to shout down the country's leader by lampooning him.

It started in February, when a group of Egyptian activists shot a Harlem Shake video in front of the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We're creating a new group called Satiric Revolutionary Struggle that aims to send clear messages to the Muslim Brotherhood through satire," activist and Modern Academy student Farid Sayed told Egypt's Daily News.

The previous day, four men were arrested when they performed the Harlem Shake dance in their underwear in Cairo.

The Brotherhood responded by releasing a Harlem Shake video of their own, sporting makeshift masks with the faces of members of the opposition group National Salvation Front.

Ahmad al-Mogheer, a member of the Brotherhood's online communities, confirmed to Al-Arabiya that he was the man in the video, and he later removed the clip from YouTube, though it had already circulated widely elsewhere.

The Harlem Shake is particularly inflammatory in Egypt, where the secular opposition has pushed back against what it believes to be the ruling Islamists' increasing influence over societal values and laws.

"Look, dancing in the street is something abnormal in Egyptian society," Satiric Revolutionary member Mahmoud Tabei told The Verge. "It is not in our tradition. People say it is morally bad -- 'Oh, that's un-Islamic!' So that's why we chose 'Harlem Shake,' because it's this kind of behavior that the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists consider haram [forbidden by Islamic law]."

But not all of the satire videos have been so religiously charged, and some are simply prompted by the protesters' youthfulness. A few days ago, another opposition group spoofed the classic Super Mario game with "Super Mursi" in which the Egyptian leader's avatar frolicks through the Mushroom Kingdom, crushing opponents and nudging the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie:

Al-Arabiya has more on the opposition movement's strategy with this one:

"The video ends with an alternative to the words 'Game Over.' Instead 'Thawra Over' appears on a black screen, with the word 'Thawra' meaning revolution in Arabic - an indication that 'Super Mursi's' moves may have done more harm to the uprising than good."

I was surprised to learn that many Egyptian villages actually have arcade-like spaces filled with old gaming consoles, which could be one reason for Mario's seemingly retro resurgence in this particular video.

Issandr El Amrani, who writes at the Arabist blog, explained in an email:

I loved the Super Morsi video -- it's actually a favorite geek meme to adapt Super Mario Brothers to all sorts of things, so I think the choice is a) pretty obvious b) reflects how much youth culture in the Arab world shares the same cultural references as those in the West -- this generation is globalized, and young people here grew up playing Super Mario and Playstation just like young people across the world. Every slum and village in Egypt has a video-game parlor, but rather than old-fashioned arcades they are just a bunch of T.V.s and old consoles (and increasingly networked computers for LAN parties).

But it also doesn't necessarily reflect a preference for American culture, El Amrani said, since both the Harlem Shake and Super Mario hail from abroad and were just popularized in America:

While Harlem Shake (the dance and the song) is American, the video meme began in Australia and spread to Europe before reaching the US. As for the Mario Brothers, they are a Japanese culture reference, not an American one -- it's just that we Americans who grew up in the 80s with [Nintendo] consoles think of it as ours, and I suppose Egyptians do too!