On November 16, 2017, Egyptian satirist Islam al-Rifai walked into a trap set by authorities. The comedian believed he was attending a work meeting when his alleged business associates revealed themselves to be security agents. Despite lacking concrete evidence, the agents arrested al-Rifai on charges of membership in an “illegal group.”
Al-Rifai’s arrest represents a larger trend in Egypt. Under the rule of the current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, countless satirists have been placed behind bars in a government crackdown on all forms of dissent. As the threat against comedy mounts, it’s necessary to recognize the important role that comedy has played as a tool of resistance in Egyptian politics.
The Egyptian sense of humor, seasoned by thousands of years of repressive regimes, has become a cornerstone of both Egyptian civic and political life. During ancient times, Egyptians lined the gates of their houses with statues of Bes, the god of humor and a symbol of protection, thereby establishing an early association between comedy and resistance. Indeed, this flair for humor earned the ancient Egyptians such a reputation for wit that the Romans allegedly barred Egyptians from legal practice, fearing that “Egyptian humor would dilute the gravitas of the legal institution.” Over the following centuries, as Egypt changed hands between various imperial powers and dictators, comedy remained a stubborn constant.
In the second half of the 20th century, citizens lampooned the regimes of Nasser and Sadat, specifically targeting military failures, personal deficits, and repressive tendencies. Of course, this all came at considerable risk: TV satirists frequently saw their shows suspended, while other political comedians could expect fines, and in many cases, imprisonment. Then, during his tenure from 1981 to 2011, President Hosni Mubarak cultivated a perilous atmosphere for satire. Yet, Egyptians continued laughing at their leader’s expense. The 2011 Arab Spring revolution accentuated the ability of Egyptian comedy to draw global attention to the country. Memes, spoof accounts, and jokes spread like wildfire across Twitter and Facebook, tying Egyptians to each other and to the rest of the world. When citizens took to the streets wielding humorous signs of resistance, not only did these signs inspire solidarity amongst protesters, but they also generated widespread recognition for the movement when “photographs from Tahrir [Square] of people carrying hilarious signs went viral within minutes of posting,” according to media scholar Adel Iskandar.
According to Sherif Mansour, the Middle East Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, satire succeeded in breaking down a “fear barrier.” Mahmoud Salem, an Egyptian blogger, told the Atlantic it was “easier to make [the government] look ridiculous” than to confront Mubarak’s regime head on. Laughter dismantled the very fear Mubarak had tried so hard to incite, and the president stepped down in February of 2011.
Unlike Mubarak, el-Sisi has yielded no ground to comedians. The current government has relentlessly imprisoned satirists, shuttered websites, and cleansed the airwaves of political opposition, measures that Mansour sees as efforts to “restore the fear barrier which was broken in 2011.” In July 2018, the government passed a law to hold social media accounts with over 5,000 followers to the same standards as fully-fledged media outlets, opening the door to the prosecution of ordinary citizens for “publishing false news” or encouraging law-breaking. Even comedians who consciously avoid political issues currently face imprisonment. Nancy Okail, the director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, explains, “anyone who [appears] to have any independent line, whatever it is, and have some following outside of the control of the government—that becomes a threat.”
Last May, Egyptian police arrested and imprisoned Shady Abu Zeid, a satirical blogger most famous for his viral video pranking police officers in Tahrir square by handing them inflated condoms. He was charged under the wide net of “joining an illegal group” and “spreading false news.” This arrest shocked Egyptians everywhere because Abu Zeid’s content was expressly apolitical, focusing on bringing attention to societal problems such as pervasive sexual harassment. Indeed, the president’s attempts to gain total control over both his administration’s political narrative and his personal image have left the most vocal figures without a platform. Consequently, comedy has moved further into the shadows, and even the most covert expressions of dissent have been silenced. For example, dozens of Cairo street vendors have been arrested for selling “Sisi’s Balls,” odd trinkets resembling a pair of cherries that mimic the president’s nether regions.
As the threat against comedy compounds under el-Sisi’s rule, it is important to reflect on the historical relevance of humor. Humor has been an incredibly powerful, resilient, and adaptable tool; it has, after all, survived millennia of oppression in Egypt. John C. Meyer, an expert in the field of communications theory, argues that humor “can…be used as a device to challenge authority by providing the shield of jesting.” As the “fear barrier” breaks down, a society of people who laugh in unison at their dictator will be better prepared to challenge that individual’s rule.
It is critical that comedy in Egypt not be extinguished. Pro-democracy champions must understand the power of everyday jokes and support the political cartoonists, comedians, and satirical vloggers. In Egypt, hope is held closely with humor, and the sustained health of comedy is key to resilience. The push for change need not be inspired solely through anger and fist-shaking. The path to democracy in Egypt is better accomplished through laughter, and all jokes can help amplify the wit of the Egyptians. Just ask Hosni “Moo-barak.”
Photo: “Street in Egypt“