Laughing at dictatorship

Laughing at dictatorship

Public discontent in Egypt has not been solely manifested in ballot boxes (when there are semi-fair elections), demonstrations and newspaper articles. Most Egyptians still feel insecure about expressing themselves in these ways.Writing against the regime is sometimes punishable by physical abuse, as in the case of Abd el-Haleem Qandil, the prominent leftist writer, who was kidnapped, stripped of his clothes, beaten up and left naked in the desert near Cairo a couple of years ago.

Joining a demonstration, even those previously approved by the notorious state security apparatus puts the demonstrators” safety at stake. Voting in elections is not entirely safe either.For these reasons and others, Egyptians are cautious to engage in real politics, and sceptical of the benefits of doing so. Therefore, they have resorted to other, more secure means to express their political views. Of these, political jokes are perhaps the most interesting.

A couple of jokes clearly illustrate the hatred Egyptians feel towards President Mubarak.Mubarak and his advisers are on board of his plane over Cairo. Mubarak brings out $1,000 and asks how he could use the money to make Egyptians happy. One adviser suggests throwing it out of the window to make an Egyptian family happy. A second adviser suggests splitting it into two bundles and throwing both out of the window to make two Egyptian families happy. The third adviser suggests that Mubarak puts the money in his pocket and jumps out of the window to make all Egyptians happy.Another joke illustrates how the authorities are well aware that Mubarak is the most hated figure in Egypt. An old man is walking down the street and yelling a famous Egyptian curse: “May God ruin your life, Hanafi.” A policeman then arrests him for “not knowing the president”s name” (Mubarak”s first name is Hosni, not Hanafi).

Egyptians continue to make fun of the inheritance plan, by which Gamal Mubarak is expected to take over his father”s presidency. It is said that Mubarak called the sheikh of al-Azhar (appointed by the president, and known for his loyalty to the regime) and asked him to issue a fatwa that Gamal should be the next president. Surprisingly, the sheikh refuses, insisted that it contradicts a verse of the Qur”an: “You are not allowed to marry and have intercourse with whom your parents have married” (a metaphor for what Mubarak and his regime have been doing to the country over the past 26 years). But the joke also includes a side-message: that Mubarak, who claims to be a secular leader cracking down on Islamist opposition, relies heavily relying on religious figures and institutions to legitimise his rule.Mubarak”s advanced age (he”s 79) and his insistence on ruling Egypt “till his last breath” have given rise to numerous deathbed jokes. One narrates how the dying Mubarak is told by a minister that the Egyptian people want to see him one last time and say goodbye. Mubarak, surprised, asks: “Why? Where are they going?”

Another deathbed joke focuses on his greed. “What would Egyptians do without me?” the dying president asks. His adviser, keen to comfort him, says he should not worry about the Egyptian people, as they “could eat stones” (an expression implying they are very resilient). After a brief silence, Mubarak then orders his adviser to issue a presidential decree giving Alaa (his elder son) a monopoly over the trade in stones.Fear of Mubarak”s brutality is depicted in another joke about a primary school. The teacher asks his students whether elephants walk or fly, and a student says they fly. The teacher corrects him, but the student insists. After a short exchange, the teacher asks the student for his name to add it to a detention list, and the student answers: “Ahmed Alaa Mubarak.” Recognising the name of the president”s grandson, the teacher says: “You are right. Elephants do fly, but when they are tired of flying, they go down and walk.”There are dozens of jokes mocking the Egyptian regime”s tyranny, corruption and authoritarianism. They all send one very clear message: Egyptians are not happy with the regime – they feel insecure when openly challenging it and so resort to jokes, mixing the bitterness of life with humour. Nonetheless, their ability to keep a smile on their faces will not last for ever, and after Mubarak goes no one can predict what will be next.