Side by side with the mounting protests demanding his departure, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is facing an internecine war from the fabled Egyptian joke machine. He is the target of a torrent of ferocious jokes popularized by the influential social media.
In fact, no Egyptian president or ruler has been immune to jokes, which usually serve as an outlet to vent pressure. There is historical evidence that state institutions in the era of the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser used jokes to gauge public opinion before 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. 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.
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, which were used by Morsi himself in his campaign for Egypt’s top post, has ironically turned into a threat to his name and public image. Dozens of written and illustrated jokes are daily spread against Morsi via Facebook, which is used by at least 12 million Egyptians. Meanwhile, the nightly tweeting hours become virtual gatherings for poking fun at Morsi. An estimated 300,000 to 500,00 Egyptians use Twitter.
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 Morsi. In the last two months, there has been at least one satirical videotape every day ribbing Morsi.
The scale of Egyptian 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 non-Internet users. TV talk shows have developed a daily habit of broadcasting extracts from comments posted on the Internet and from YouTube videos. Newspapers, meanwhile, carry similar reports on almost a daily basis.
In a short time, sarcasm moves from the verbal stage to that of documentation thanks to the media. Now sarcasm has become institutionalized. Several media companies have recently shown interest in producing political satire shows targeting the 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 “Republic TV”, is becoming popular as well.
While institutionalized sarcasm has developed the 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 political 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 did this earlier and even convinced the public to believe 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 Morsi hit the airwaves many hours after it was conducted due to lengthy editing for fear that it would produce more 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 Morsi.
While Egyptians have long prided themselves on having an uncanny power to manufacture jokes and on being light-hearted people, a lot of experts see the popularity of political jokes as a sign of helplessness. Jokes are also linked to a tendency in Egyptian folk culture to spread rumors. Yet, the present intense joking phenomenon has turned such traditional sarcastic helplessness into a kind of political 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. Follow him on Twitter @abkamal.