Side by side with the mounting protests demanding his departure, Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi is facing an internecine war from Egyptians’ fabled joking machine. He is the target of a torrent of ferocious jokes popularized by the influential social media.
In fact, no Egyptian president or ruler was immune to jokes, which usually served as an outlet to vent pressure. There is historical evidence that state institutions in the era of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser had used jokes to gauge public opinion before the standard opinion polls were known.
A prevalent impression, albeit undocumented, is that some Egyptian security agencies in the past propagated jokes to see reactions to them. In his early years in power, the now-toppled president Hosni Mubarak used to meet with comedians to listen to their jokes, including some cracked by Egyptians against him. In the hit bio-film “Days of Sadat,” one scene shows Sadat with his son who reluctantly tells him a political joke in which the president is branded as a donkey.
There were specific periods of time when Egyptians’ jokes against their rulers peaked. Still, never before has Egypt known such a large number of jokes against a head of state. This was even true in the aftermath of the 1967 military defeat by Israel when Egyptians lashed out at the national army and Nasser.
Now, President Mursi cannot ask about the latest joke cracked by Egyptians against him, simply because there is no end to these jokes.
In the past, Egyptians exchanged jokes targeting their rulers during nightly gatherings at coffee shops. Afterwards, the jokes would spread to households, governmental institutions and public transport. It was not possible for the media at the time to explicitly address such jokes.
But the explosion of social networking sites, somewhat used by Mursi himself in his campaign for Egypt’s top post, have ironically turned into a threat to his name and public image.
Dozens of written and illustrated jokes are daily spread against Mursi via Facebook, which is used by at least 12 million Egyptians. Meanwhile, the nightly tweeting hours become virtual gatherings for poking fun at Mursi. An estimated 300,000 to 500,00 Egyptians use Twitter.
Web 2.0 helps with ‘dry days’
Egyptians also make use of Web 2.0 features to link the content of different social networking sites. Facebook and Twitter are key platforms for popularizing scathing jokes against Mursi. In the last two months, there has been at least one satirical videotape every day ribbing Mursi. On dry days, Egyptian browsers would dig for old clips from addresses made by Mursi before becoming president to showcase his contradictory stances. The browsers have recently posted embarrassing old footage in which he harshly criticized the US and Israel, in sheer contrast with his present amicable policy towards the two countries.
The scale of Egyptians’ sarcasm targeting authorities has expanded due to reciprocity among media. In addition to reciprocity among social networking sites, the traditional media quotes the new media, thus popularizing the material among the non-Internet users.
TV talk shows have developed a daily habit of broadcasting extracts from the people’s comments posted on the Internet and showing YouTube videos. Newspapers, meanwhile, carry similar reports on an almost daily basis. This is a component of a large-scale critical reciprocity process among different media.
In so short a time, sarcasm moved from the verbal stage to that of documentation thanks to media. Now sarcasm has become institutionalized. Several media companies have recently shown interest in producing political satire shows targeting wide audience of the traditional and new media. The show “Al Bernameg” (The Program) hosted by Egypt’s celebrated political satirist Bassem Youssef is in the lead.
Satirical YouTube material, known as the “Republic TV”, is becoming popular too. Meanwhile, Egyptian satirists present various items through a well-known Jordanian company called “Kharabeesh” (Scratches).
While institutionalized sarcasm has developed production and dissemination of jokes, it has also transformed them from a mere outlet of anger and helplessness to a means for achieving certain objectives, an area where the opposition has failed. Incessant joking is credited with wrecking the president’s prestige in a short time. In recent months, the president has been stereotyped as a satellite, contradictory, infirm, deceptive and a dawdler. While opposition politicians hesitated to call the president “illegal”, institutionalized sarcasm had done this earlier and even convinced the public of believing it. As a result, a number of opponents have called for early presidential elections.
More importantly, Egyptian-style sarcasm has explored a fresh stage. Jokes are no longer cracked in reaction to the president’s behavior. They precede and predict presidential acts. Jokes even put a brake on these acts.
In recent weeks, news has repeatedly gone round that the president will address the nation. However, these addresses were never delivered apparently for fear of feedback. Moreover, a TV interview with Mursi hit the airwaves long hours after it was conducted due to lengthy editing for fear of drawing jokes. “The broadcasting was delayed lest we crack jokes,” Youssef, the famed satirist, said on a recent episode of his show. The delay in airing the interview proved a reason itself to unleash hundreds of sharp comments against Mursi.
While Egyptians have long prided themselves on having an uncanny joking power and being light-hearted people, a lot of experts used to see the popularity of political jokes as a sign of helplessness. Jokes were also linked to a tendency in Egyptian folk culture to spread rumours. Yet, the present intense phenomenon of joking has turned such traditional sarcastic helplessness into a kind of political resistance. It also can be categorized as what Gene Sharp called “non-violent resistance.”
Egyptian protesters have not encircled the presidential palace since January. Instead, they maintain an effective siege on the president by making him the butt of incessant jokes.
Abdullah Kamal is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer has previously held positions as editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011). He can be reached on Twitter: @abkamal