Abla Fahita: The Egyptian toy story with a satirical, ‘sexual’ twist
The puppet has spoken out on condoms, hangovers and even posed with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey
A puppet has upset Egypt’s parliament.
Abla Fahita – a Muppet-esque doll that takes on the comedic character of a self-indulgent widow – launched a tirade against MPs during an episode of her show earlier this month.
In a satirical song, which aired on Egyptian private TV channel CBC, the puppet labeled MPs as being “impaired.”
The sketch immediately kicked up a fuss, with parliament gathering a petition addressed to the prosecutor general calling for the program to be cancelled and the CBC to be penalized.
'Live from the Duplex'
Capitalizing on the wave of political comedy and satire to hit the country in recent years, Abla Fahita has basked in the primetime spotlight for more than a year.
The candid puppet’s success is reminiscent of the popularity seized by Egyptian satirist Bassem Yousef’s show “The Program” which went off air in 2014.
Abla Fahita’s show “Live from the Duplex” tops CBC’s ratings, with figures from last year showing that 15 percent of Egypt’s population watch the program – equal to almost eight million people.
During a parliament session last week addressing the satircal song, Speaker Ali Abdul Aal attacked TV programs that “disparage members of parliament and go beyond freedom of expression.”
But does the Egyptian parliament have reason to be angered?
“In principle, anyone has the right to be angry,” Middle East media analyst Joe Khalil told Al Arabiya English this week.
“When they chose to be elected, these parliamentarians put themselves under public scrutiny. Whether investigative journalism or parody, public officials need to accept this trade-off,” he added.
Still, the use of a derogatory term appears to have thrown this balance.
“I think what is really alarming about this incident is that the writers use of the term ‘impaired’ to describe the parliamentarians. It really reveals a lack of respect for people with disabilities and other disfigurements,” said Khalil.
Here, the issue extends beyond personal or political attacks. According to Khalil, insensitive language may be indicative of an increasingly insensitive society.
Earlier this month, the puppet’s use of “sexual innuendos” during her jokes resulted in a lawsuit filed by an "offended" lawyer. Abla Fahita has been referred to as “kinky” for openly speaking out on condoms, hangovers and even posing with a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.
The lawsuit will be heard in court in June and will question whether the program’s sexual references “run contrary to the values and ethics of Egypt,” according to the Egypt Independent news site.
The lawyer, Samir Sabry, was quoted as saying that he “does not believe Abla Fahita is a good example of freedom of speech or creativity ... There is a fine line between moral decadence and freedom of speech and creativity.”
But this line is anything but a hot knife through butter – particularly as satire is founded on “crossing the line,” said Khalil.
“Political satire is rooted in a political culture that accepts tolerance. For example, extremism’s worst enemy is political satire because it exposes and debunks its claims.
“For me, the line is drawn between satire and mockery. When you see that the jokes are simple and void of any political analysis, this is when satire turns into mockery. In our culture as in many others, mockery is a personal attack.”
The puppet does have a history with Egypt's long arm of the law, however.
In 2014, local media outlets labeled the popular felt-and-yarn doll a “terrorist mouthpiece” after she appeared in a Vodafone advert.
The mobile provider was accused of using the popular character to send coded messages that instruct members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization to carry out terrorist operations.
The international press reported the news as part of “silly season in Egypt” and took a quick-witted jab at the “Muppet Brotherhood.” But in Egypt, state prosecutors opened an investigation into Vodafone’s allegedly “dangerous” commercial. Vodafone described the accusations as "irrational" and the case was later thrown out.
Back then, Fahita was mostly a YouTube sensation. Earlier, in 2012, she released a song responding to Islamist President Mohammad Mursi’s rise to power titled “Don’t worry Carolina, they’re only four years.” Carolina is referred to in the program’s skits as Fahita’s daughter.
Another example of her popularity was seen in 2014 when she collaborated with Arab Idol judge Hassan El-Shafei in a song named "Mayestahloushi" or "they don't deserve." Their music video has hit 13.7 million views at the time of writing.
While Abla Fahita’s producers did not respond to Al Arabiya English’s request for comment on the anger in parliament, the puppet has been vocal on social media.
A tweet posted on Friday from an official account read: “Grown men are standing up against a widow. The Egyptian parliament has been shaken by a widow.”
رجالة بشنبات ضد أرملة ببيجودي.. #أرملة_هزت_برلمان_مصر— ابلة فاهيتا (@AblaFahita) April 22, 2016
‘Never a dull day’
Some argue that the need for satire in Egypt stems from an array of societal misgivings over politics in the country.
"It's pretty normal for a satirical show to address social issues in a country that has no scarcity of these," Ahmed Emad, an Egyptian media and television critic told Al Arabiya English.
"There is never a dull day in Egypt, every day there is a new topic at hand that splits people into 'for and against.' So for a show like Fahita, it is important to feel the pulse and address it."
When asked to explain Abla Fahita's impact on Egyptian audiences, Emad said that the puppet's "humor is not for everyone.”
He added: "It addresses a certain societal group, the intellectual elite if you will, that are definitely not Egypt's majority. This leaves out a decent portion of Egyptian society who don't watch her because she doesn't represent them; they don't even get her jokes."
So how "big" is this puppet?
"She is viewed as an interesting character - a school project puppet that became a TV celebrity,” said Emad. “But nothing more, certainly not a political satirist She is more of a general entertainer – that happens to include politics whenever the hype is political."
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