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When humor is no longer necessary in Egypt

Egyptians have, incredibly, found things to laugh about during the most obscenely difficult of times

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

“I was an analyst,” H. A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert with the Brookings Institution, wrote on Twitter. “And then I had to explain terrorist puppets, spy storks and AIDS cures in koftas,” he wrote, referring to part of the Army treatment that somehow involved ground meat.

New York Times, Feb 26, 2013

Admittedly, analyzing Egyptian politics over the last few years has delivered a number of laughs. Egyptians have, incredibly, found things to laugh about during the most obscenely difficult of times. When Egyptians were in Tahrir Square over the 18-day uprising in 2011, it did not take too long for their humor to shine through. Messages were written to alert Hosni Mubarak to the dire necessity of his immediate resignation – so that protesters could go home and shower. I still remember the satirical army communiqué that announced towards the end of the 18 days: “Communiqué number six: The higher military council vows not to withdraw its troops from the streets unless it makes sure every Egyptian takes pictures beside the tanks."

Former President Mursi's era and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power provided Egyptians with a further fodder for humor, certainly. The extra-judicial decree that suspended legal oversight over Mursi's decisions in late November 2012 easily made him the subject of derision as a superhuman dictator, "Super-Mursi." A number of embarrassing incidents on television, abroad, as well as at home, provided yet more stimulus – even without the prominent Egyptian political satirist, Bassem Youssef, finding creative ways to point out flaws in power through wit, Egyptians poked fun. They are, after all, a funny people.

I laugh, therefore I am

It’s partly how Egyptians continue to exist nowadays. For example, journalists in Cairo are now jokingly told, with the darkest of humor, "OK, don’t be late to this appointment, otherwise I’m changing our venue to the Marriott and telling them who you really work for," in reference to the (sic) "Marriott Cell" episode. (#FreeAllJournalists, by the way – one of the journalist's trials is coming up on Wednesday – let them go already.) Another joke that may yet make the rounds after the pro-revolutionary film, "The Square," was nominated for the Oscars may be: “Congratulations, Egyptians! The Egyptian film that no Egyptian can legally watch in Egypt was nominated for the Oscar. Congrats to all!"

Egyptians have, incredibly, found things to laugh about during the most obscenely difficult of times

H.A. Hellyer

Or perhaps a comment vis-à-vis the transitional justice minister, who said clearly that now is not the time for transitional justice? (But it’s the time for laws on protests, arbitrary arrests, hyper ultra-nationalism…)

But what happens when humor is no longer needed? When reality itself is, indeed, just as humorous as any fictional comedy that could have been written? When storks can be mistaken for having roles in espionage (and then eaten) – is there a need to crack jokes? Or is the reality already absurd enough? When hand puppets called ‘Abla Fahita’ are described by bloggers called ‘Spider’ as sending out ‘terrorist messages’ – I mean, what need is there to utilize the famed Egyptian skill of humor? Isn’t the reality hilarious enough?

A bad joke?

Well… it is funny. I tweeted something about the frustration of analyzing Egypt in this environment – it fit with a story that was being written by a reporter with the New York Times, who then included it. That it in itself is rather amusing – that my frustration would be considered newsworthy above my analysis, which I wasn’t asked to provide (thank God, because I had nothing).

But it also isn’t funny in the slightest. The latest scandal, nicknamed "Kofta-Gate" on Twitter by a noted Egyptian blogger, Mahmoud Salem, centers around a "discovery" that an Egyptian military officer apparently found the cure for AIDs and Hepatitis C. More than that, he apparently found a way to cure AIDs via a method that would involve eating an Egyptian delicacy, kofta. Never mind that it turns out this officer isn’t actually an officer at all, which another prominent blogger, "Zeinobia," would bring to light. It’s hilarious from one angle – but actually, it’s not really funny at all. Because, as many have pointed out, these "discoveries" were relayed back to the people of Egypt as real.

It’s one thing for bloggers, commentators, and satirists to make fun of political events – because, as the aforementioned satirist reminded viewers on his last episode, everyone knows they’re just making fun of things. When certain entities, however, via national state television and other fora, declare that cures for AIDs and Hepatitis C have been found, it’s not funny at all. There are literally millions of people in Egypt who suffer from Hepatitis C and AIDs. Egyptians have already seen "religion-merchants" and "nationalism-merchants"– do they really need to witness "hope-merchants?" Do people who suffer from these conditions really need to be put through yet more suffering, by seeing their hopes inflated and then ruined in an instant? No. They don’t.

One hopes that the Egyptian authorities will pay attention to the advice of civil society organisations like the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, that confirm the existence of genuine medical treatments that can cure millions of Egyptians, rather than waste their time on groundless expectations. It’s immensely cruel if these proponents of false cures know they’re fraudulent – and the epitome of negligence if they do not. Because they’ve just given scores of infected people hope – hope that will invariably be dashed. There’s really very little that is funny about that.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.