Egypt’s revolution may be over, but the political humor that energized the protests is gaining new momentum, with a new generation of satirists using comedy to speak truth to power.
When Egyptian authorities declared former President Hosni Mubarak "clinically dead,” political cartoonist Islam Gawish
knew he had a punch line in the making.
Gawish drew a cartoon depicting a mother trying to wake up her son. The mother says, "Get up, your father wants you outside." The son responds, "Tell him I'm clinically dead."
"When the news came out, a lot of people didn't understand what that meant. Some of them would know clinical death, but not 'death bed,' so I tried to explain the difference to people in my cartoons, and it made a lot of noise," Gawish said.
While Mubarak was in power, Gawish used to hang anti-government cartoons on walls and buildings instead of risking arrest by joining street protests. With the rise of social media, his subversive drawings are now being posted on virtual walls, with his loyal fan base sharing them through Facebook and Twitter.
"If I take my political cartoon to a state-run newspaper, it would be censored and would never get published,” he said. “On Facebook, there is no censorship, so whenever I put something there, a large number of people will see it."
Gawish is part of a growing global movement using humor for very serious ends.
Humor as a political tool is called “laughtivism,” a phrase coined by Srdja Popovic
, the founder and leader of the student movement that brought down Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
“Laughtivism derives its power from the ability to melt fear, the lifeblood of dictators, build the morale of groups, and cut to the core of out of touch leaders,” said Popovic.
Popovic’s Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies
has taught activists from Egypt and 49 more countries laughtivism and other techniques honed during the Serbian revolution.
Laughtivism is “an activity that is designed to put the authorities in a position so that no matter how they respond, they cannot win,” Popovic said, recounting the time the Serbian resistance placed Milosevic’s face on an oil drum in a crowded street with a bat, for passers-by to abuse.
“The comical image of two police officers wrestling a barrel with the president’s face on it into the back of a cop car was all over the papers the next day,” he recalled.
Popovic says today’s mass movements, like Egypt’s Arab Spring, are willing to use techniques that would never have been considered by the revolutionaries of the 1970s and ’80s, who took themselves more seriously.
“As time goes on, these movements cannot afford to fall out of the media spotlight, and therefore out of the public’s consciousness, so if they are going to stay there, they will need to be creative,” said Popovic.
Egyptians don’t seem to have a problem with that. They've been using humor to get around censorship since a 1952 military coup ousted the monarchy and squashed freedom of speech.
Last year's revolution has given birth to countless creative forms of protest. Among the most successful are the fake TV news program "Al Bernameg"
and “El Koshary
,” a satirical online newspaper similar to the popular U.S. publication “The Onion
,” which makes fun of real life with ironic headlines and stories.
"Al Bernameg"’s Bassem Youssef has been compared to Jon Stewart, the host of "The Daily Show
," a satirical American TV program that draws laughs with exaggerated news stories mocking ludicrous political and social situations.
Youssef says he writes his material based on Egypt’s political events, a creative process inspired by the Arab Spring as it was sweeping into Egypt last year.
“The best thing to dismantle a dictator and his fascist regime is to mock him, when you do that the fear barrier starts to break down. So political jokes and humor is the first defense line against dictatorships,” Youssef said.
Scoffing at SCAF
While Mubarak is out of power, Samer Shehata, an associate professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University in Washington, says there is still a place for comic relief.
"Humor, political jokes and particularly graffiti have been effectively used, especially the latter by revolutionaries, against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF),” Shehata said. “It is harsh, biting and particularly effective at exposing some of the lies of the SCAF and their allies - presenting a more critical perspective on current political events.”
Shehata says now that Mubarak is out of office, state media has a “different master” - SCAF, which has curbed the powers of Egypt’s new president.
Gawish says that makes it difficult for artists like him, who like to make fun of everyone, to work in traditional media.
“The state-run newspapers would like the cartoons not to touch politics. The opposition newspapers would like all cartoons to be criticizing the government all the time. The political Islamic newspapers would like you to do anything but criticize political Islam. They would like you to draw cartoons that show they're the only right people,” he said.
Social media offers a new space to commentators like Gawish. A field once dominated by professional satirists and artists is now crowded with amateurs armed with computers, Photoshop and a quick wit.
One of the images frequently used online is a black and white drawing of Chinese basketball player Yao Ming, which is already a popular meme in the West used to dismiss someone else’s comments in online discussions. Creative jokesters have co-opted the contour drawing to represent the Egyptian people, placing it in humorous situations, often pairing it with captions skewering Egypt’s authorities.
“What attracted Egyptian youth to use it heavily was that his facial expressions were exactly that of an Egyptian young person’s normal expression,” Gawish explained. “It gives you exclamation, sarcasm, so it was easy for young Egyptians to use him to express their own feelings.”
Many Egyptians, young and old, are feeling befuddled with the political situation. Given the continued mystery surrounding Mubarak’s health, a parliament in limbo, and the military and president competing for power, political humorists like Gawish won’t be lacking for material any time soon.