In 2011, the majority of Egyptians revolted against the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak demanding ‘bread, freedom and social justice.' The mere mention of the historic protests also known as the 'Arab Spring/uprising' brings back vivid memories. Egyptians’ proverbial sense of humour is one such.
During the 18-day protests between 25 January and 11 February 2011, Egyptians demonstrated unwavering resilience to see the change in the status quo. They also used their epic sense of humour to communicate their demands and grievances—social, political, and economic as they endured the three-decade-long reign of Mubarak.
Taking a dig at Mubarak’s decades-long rule, Egyptians joked, “Use Hosni [Mubarak] glue. It sticks for 30 years!”, and “The carpenters’ union likes to ask Mr Mubarak: What kind of glue do you use?”
Mubarak’s long reign was characterised by political repression, corruption, and lack of freedom. During the protests, Egyptians mocked the lack of freedom under Mubarak. A banner depicted an “Installing Freedom” screen grab and a message reading, “Cannot install freedom. Please remove ‘Mubarak’ and try again.”
In fact, Egyptians have long relied on the tradition of jokes and political satire to circumvent political censorship and dissipate their anger against the powers. For instance, the lack of freedom was also the hallmark of the rule of Egypt’s former President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Egyptian Culture of Political Humour
Taking a jibe at the disregard for truth and the police abuse under Nasser, Egyptians shared a joke that “a fox in the Western Desert escaped to Libya and Libyans asked, ‘Why do you come here?’ The fox said, ‘Because in Egypt, they arrest camels.’ The Libyans said, ‘But you are not a camel.’ The fox then said, ‘Of course not, but try telling that to the police!’”
Mubarak’s rule was no different. In addition to the lack of freedom and the police abuse, he maintained his stranglehold on power through fraudulent elections. Egyptians shared a joke about vote rigging in elections under Mubarak where a man dared to vote against the government in a parliamentary election.
However, on his way back home, the man trembled at the thought of the repercussions he and his family would face if the authorities found out what he did. Therefore, he immediately returned to the polling station and apologised to the policeman in charge: “I’m very sorry, but I think I made a mistake on my ballot paper.” The policeman replied, “Yes, you did, but not to worry. Fortunately, we spotted your mistake and have already corrected it. Please be more careful next time.”
Response to Mubarak's Power-Hungry & Repressive Measures
During the 18-day protests, Mubarak didn’t appear to give up on power easily and employed different means to pacify and coerce the protesters to give up on their demand for his ouster. In a bid to pacify the protesters, Mubarak named a Vice President for the first time during his long reign. Unlike his predecessors—Nasser and Anwar el-Sadat, Mubarak didn’t appoint a Vice President upon coming to power. Egyptians didn’t spare him for it.
They joked about the absence of a Vice President under Mubarak thus: “When Nasser became president, he wanted a vice president stupider than himself to avoid a challenger, so he chose Sadat. When Sadat became president, he chose Mubarak for the same reason. But Mubarak has no vice president because there is no one in Egypt stupider than he is.”
Mubarak eventually appointed a Vice President amidst the heat of the popular protests against his rule. However, protesting Egyptians didn’t appear to be moved by it. They rather joked about Mubarak’s desperate attempts to cling to power, and were seen holding placards that humorously pleaded Mubarak to leave: “Please leave! My hand hurts” or “Please leave! I miss my wife.”
Another joke on Mubarak’s persistence to hold onto power goes like this: former US President Barack Obama advised Mubarak to write a farewell letter to his nation and Mubarak asks, “Why? Where are they going?”
Egyptians retained such sense of humour despite failed violent attempts by authorities to repress the demonstrations. During the initial days of the protests, the police remained unsuccessful in suppressing the protests and made an inexplicable disappearance from the streets. Subsequently, the army was deployed.
How Egyptians Managed To Oust Mubarak From Power Is No Joke
Egyptians were seen welcoming the deployment of the military. Even then the military couldn’t escape Egyptians’ keen sense of humour. They mocked one of the announcements by the military thus: “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.”
After 18 days of struggle, Egyptians were eventually successful in getting their immediate demand fulfilled—the ouster of Mubarak. They received Mubarak’s ouster with their classic sense of humour and told him: “Come back. We were just kidding.”
Yet another joke widely shared after Mubarak stepped down referred to his afterlife where he met his two predecessors—Nasser and Sadat. They enquired how he ended up here. Mubarak responded, Facebook! The joke underlined the vital role of social media in materialising the Egyptian uprising.
(Ashiya is a former journalist and recently submitted her PhD in International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)