As the Arab Spring blossomed in Egypt early last year, people around the world quickly noticed something about the protesters and their signs: they were often funny. But as Satenik Harutyunyan outlines in a recent article for the University of California San Diego online journal Prospect, Egyptians have long employed humor to circumvent censorship and resist oppressive rule.
Egyptian humor reaches all the way back to the pharaonic dynasties, and to this day Egyptians are reputed jokesters in the Arab world. But throughout history, this tendency has often been censored by repressive governments. When the Romans took control of Egypt around 2000 years ago, says Harutyunyan, “Egyptian advocates were legally banned from practicing law because of a known tendency to employ wit and humor in their work. Romans found such behavior offensive to the serious nature of the profession.”
Due to the largely oral tradition of Egyptian humor, however, rulers who tried to silence it have not often been successful. Harutyunyan describes the inherently evasive nature of verbal jokes:
Because such jokes are often told during informal setting through word of mouth, the government is unable to conduct thorough censorship. In Egypt, this kind of social humor has been referred to as ‘nukta,’ which can be explained as a verbal cartoon. The ‘nukta’ is a verbal exchange between people that serves as an oral editorial with critical value. All the same, any Egyptian ‘nukta’ makes its statement through humorous means.
Of course, there are also written and representational forms of humor in Egypt that have managed to escape censors. Political cartoons, for instance, often managed to tread the fine line of governmental tolerance and became instrumental in communicating popular sentiments during the revolution. Harutyunyan explains the tactics used by cartoonists before and after Mubarak was forced to step down:
Even during the protests and the buildup toward revolution, if a cartoonist wished to publish a political cartoon, he or she would not be allowed to draw a specific political figure. One contemporary political cartoonist from Egypt named Sherif Arafa explains his strategy to continue making political jokes in the face of government oppression. During Mubarak’s regime, the artist created a figure called ‘the Responsible’ who represents the top political figures. Arafa says, “I draw him differently every time so he can have the physical characteristics and age of the top officials I want to criticize. My readers understand whom I mean by the context of the cartoon.”
Immediately after Mubarak’s departure, however, political cartoonists began to draw recognizable caricatures of the former leader and other high-ranking government official. Arafa’s very first cartoon of the new era shows a regular citizen pushing aside Mubarak, who had been blocking out the Egyptian sun and landscape.
Harutyunyan posits that humor also helped to buoy up the spirits of protesters during the long occupation of Tahrir Square, giving them the strength to see the revolution through:
In order for the protesters to have the capacity to brave all aspects of protesting for weeks on end, social humor served as an undoubtedly needed source of energy and inspiration….By building a safe sense of community, political jokes and social satire were critical to diverting attention away from the sheer difficulty of actualizing a revolution and added positivity to an otherwise exhausting and difficult process.
Images of good-natured protesters and humorous protest signs quickly spread via the Internet, provoking a sympathetic response from much of the international community. Harutyunyan notes that this unexpected by-product of the Egyptian sense of humor should not be underestimated:
By serving as a forum to publicly display the social humor used during the revolution to billions of people, the internet helped show the global community that the Egyptian activists in Cairo intended to achieve their ends through peaceful means and with positive spirits. Although this may seem to be a rather elementary element of a revolutionary movement, the image of the Egyptian uprising as a phenomenon rooted in positivity was an extremely important part of gaining popular support from the outside world.
The Internet also brought newly liberated Egyptian political cartoons to the world through websites such as Cartoon Movement. According to Harutyunyan, ideas and concepts found in those panels have in turn inspired cartoonists from other countries as well:
Throughout the evolution of the Arab Spring, the vast majority of cartoonists in Europe and the United States relied on Egyptian sources as the basis of their jokes. Indeed, there have been distinct parallels between themes and ideas used in Egyptian and Western political cartoons. In this case, there is a type of social domino effect involved. Firstly, Egyptian political cartoonists draw inspiration from Egyptian social humor, and then political cartoonists throughout the world take inspiration from Egyptian cartoonists. Thus there is a constant connection between Egyptian political humor and the rest of the world.
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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.