Egypt: resistance through sarcasm

In light of the clampdown on freedoms and increasing security restrictions in Egypt, many activists and regular citizens have turned to sarcasm and humor to voice their opinions.

al-monitor An Egyptian walks past posters of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef outside a theatre in Cairo, Jan. 22, 2013.  Photo by AFP/Getty Images/Khaled Desouki.

Topics covered

referendum, protests, opposition, january 25 revolution, humor, egyptian society, egypt

Feb 2, 2014

As security restrictions clamp down on means of freedom of speech, humor has emerged as the only weapon of resistance. Humor is common across all cultures over time. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant and Blaise Pascal before them, as well as Greek philosophers, dedicated long, serious works to the topic of humor.

The situation can be quite aptly summarized by what the famous French comedian and activist Michel Gerard Joseph Colucci — better known as Coluche — once said: "Humor has always been anti-authority."

Humor and sarcasm are well-known as means to confront harsh dictatorships that fail to suppress what is being said and circulated through jokes and mockery. Satire underlines the contempt of people for power and offers a way to break the grip of tyranny.

Humor, irony and laughter are nothing new to Egyptian society. Many have described the January 25 Revolution as the "humor revolution." Egyptians have long been known to appreciate and tell good jokes. Jokes can also be bitter; this is not a contradiction.

A report by Abraham Garhi published by the BBC in March 2005 indicated that political satire went back to the era of the pharaohs and was recorded in some of the writings dating back to that era. He also mentioned a cafe that had been established in Cairo’s Bab al-Khaleq district. The elite of political satire authors at the time used to gather there to deride the British occupation. The Egyptian police used to storm the place to arrest some of the authors, until they eventually shut the place down.

In modern times, political caricature and satire were present during the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser, then they notched up against former Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

Thus, it was only fitting that, during the revolution, Tahrir Square became filled with cynical placards that read: “Leave, [Mubarak], my hand is hurting me,” or “Leave, because I need to shave.” When Mubarak was ousted, banners read: “Mubarak come back, we were just kidding.”

Asahbe

After the eruption of the revolution, politics became the focus of a majority of Egyptians, especially the young. New types of political satire surfaced, such as Bassem Youssef's TV show "Al-Bernameg," a sarcastic doll named Abla [Madam] Fahita, satirical videos and songs about politicians, or even sarcastic brides roaming the squares during demonstrations and sit-ins, mocking political leaders. The most widespread Egyptian humor passes through the web by means of Photoshop and comics. Social networking sites have plenty of such pages.

One of the most famous pages online was the Asa7be Sarcasm Society. This Facebook page came about by accident. It all started when the character of Asahbe was created to deride political news through comics. The page racked up 220,000 followers within one month. This is when the page's creators started to take things more seriously and formed a group of 30 people, with some members aged between 12 and 15. The page currently has 4.3 million followers.

According to Ahmed Abdul Aziz, 24, who works in advertising and is one of the page's creators, “what made the page so popular and be seen as a revolutionary page is that it is not affiliated with any party. It also deals with everything that is related to politics after the revolution, and people are interested in following up on satirical political news.”

The page’s group members choose comics that are satirical yet informative. What has been published are either works by the creators or comics sent by followers. Most images carry the logo of the page, thus forcing creators to check their sources.

“Sarcasm spreads faster than ordinary words, because it demonstrates the problem in a simple and funny way. Indeed, sarcasm has a social and political impact, but it may take a long time and it will not be useful alone. Some people think that sarcasm could bring them their rights, but the truth of the matter is that people need to go to the street to put pressure [on the government] to solve political and social problems,” said Abdul Aziz.

Photoshop

One of the most prominent sarcastic campaigns was launched when news of Lt. Gen. Sami Annan running for presidential elections was announced in November 2013. A few hours following the official news, social networking sites became rife with satirical images. A webpage was even created under the name of "Sami Annan's Campaign to Run for President of Photoshop Education." The creator of the page, who only uses his initials, was a 29-year-old educational media graduate. He came up with the name of the page after reading a comment by a friend on the number of satirical images that emerged following the news.

The creator of the page was learning Photoshop on his own and already had his own satirical page. He later changed its name when he realized he had 12 satirical images about Sami Annan. He is also the creator of many other similar, but lesser known, pages with the names of other presidential candidates.

“The idea is to send a message to people through an image or idea that is funny and expressive but within the limits of ethics. At the same time, these pages offer a space for young, talented people to display their talent through images,” he said.

The page gained 30,000 followers only a few hours after its creation. Today, it has 51,000 followers. The widespread nature of this campaign has even earned the attention of the media.

“Perhaps those who are photoshopping images are not as much subjected to threats, given their large number, as the owners of the pages. Freedoms are restricted and the media often accuse the page creators of collaboration, among other accusations,” he added.

He believes that this type of sarcasm has a positive impact and could result in undoing those decisions that have been mocked. He added that “photoshopped images can be seen as a referendum demonstrating the people’s opinion about certain issues. It is similar to writing and caricature.”

Solidarity with the puppet

Recently, the state prosecutor was asked to look into the accusation that Abla Fahita — a puppet character used in Vodafone TV commercials — made, in a certain commercial, coded references that called for terrorism. This provoked one of the most massive satirical campaigns using social networking sites. Another campaign was launched under the name of “Yes to the Constitution,” which launched derisive attacks on political figures such as Sisi and many more, as well as protests against the law on demonstrations and the tapping of phone calls of political activists, among other issues. 

Contemporary Art is one of those satirical pages. It was founded in mid-2012, although its creator came up with the idea in the beginning of 2010. The creator of the page, who prefers to remain anonymous, said that it all began with “taking interest in collecting artistic photos, which were mostly foreign.”

Perhaps this interest stems from the creator’s work as a plastic artist. However, he does not participate in designing these works. He only publishes posts sent by people specifically to the page or art works published on other pages, and he considers them all artistic works. He wrote on his page that this was an attempt to document the history of the web during this critical phase. He created another sarcastic page immediately after the revolution and collected sarcastic photos to include them in albums like “The Guy Behind Omar Suleiman,” or “Vote for Me” albums to mock presidential candidates in early 2012.

These campaigns lasted until the page was closed because of violent Internet campaigns against it. The page returned with its new name in mid-2012, and its followers have reached around 255,000. Describing the relationship between his page and the revolution, he stated that “contemporary art is closely related to social and political life. There are many types of political art, like caricature and digital art.”

“Sarcastic images are mirrors of reality. They reflect the revolution or anything political or social. Sarcastic images are a way of expressing objection to social events. It is only natural that images follow the events of the revolution.”

The page currently contains around 300 photo albums, some of which are compiled by the founder alone. Others are the result of album themes he proposes; in response, he receives pertinent sarcastic images. This is what happened in the Abla Fahita campaign, for instance.

Perhaps the most remarkable photo lately was the one sent by the Egyptian army’s Department of Morale Affairs to some newspapers. It showed a parade of the troops who were supposed to ensure security during the constitutional referendum. Besides the spelling error in the term “security patrol” in the picture, the photo showed soldiers dressed in big, red protective suits, which made them look like cartoon characters. Many have questioned the authenticity of the picture and thought that it had been photoshopped. In fact, it was an official picture “photoshopped” by the state.

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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More from  Hadeer Elmahdawy

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