Why jokes are wearing thin in Egypt

Are Egypt’s most mischievous scribblers and joke-makers now retiring?

‘‘How many terms do Egyptian presidents serve?” the joke goes. “Two. One in office and one in prison.” Both Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s dictator for almost 30 years, and Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, are under arrest and are in the middle of lengthy trial proceedings. Under Egypt’s military leadership, jokes are wearing thin.

On 1 November, the Egyptian TV channel CBC refused to air a new episode of El-Bernameg, the satirical programme fronted by Bassem Youssef, a comedian known in the west as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”. Youssef’s first programme since Morsi was toppled in July, which aired on 25 October, had divided audiences. As well as taking aim at Morsi, long the butt of Youssef’s jokes, he poked fun at the public adulation of Egypt’s interim military leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and at rising censorship.

There’s no evidence to suggest that the military forced CBC executives to pull El-Bernameg but even if CBC acted voluntarily – whether out of self-censorship or political conviction – there’s cause for concern. Karl Sharro, a Lebanese-Iraqi architect who writes a satirical blog on Middle Eastern politics called Karl ReMarks, says that he’s noticed a shift in the public’s attitude: when it comes to criticising the army, many Egyptians have become po-faced.

“A lot of people are hostile to critical thinking and have bought into the idea of the army as the vehicle for change,” he says. In this atmosphere, he believes, “Satirical ideas, because they are the harshest, will come to the foreground quite quickly.”

It’s not just supporters of the military who are losing their sense of humour: after the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi supporters find little to laugh at.

During the Arab spring, Middle Eastern satire flourished as cartoonists, comedians and journalists took advantage of new media freedoms and used humour to undermine the authority of crumbling regimes. Youssef, too, was a product of the Arab spring – he was a heart surgeon before the revolution in Egypt but started uploading his videos on YouTube, reaching audiences of millions before he was offered a television deal in 2011.

Are Egypt’s most mischievous scribblers and joke-makers now retiring? Jonathan Guyer, a US journalist who profiles Egypt’s cartoon culture on his blog Oum Cartoon, doesn’t think so. Egyptian cartoonists are too diverse to generalise about, he says, but he knows a “handful” of cartoonists who have had their work rejected by pro-junta editors and some are choosing to print their most “critical and stinging cartoons” on their Facebook pages instead.

It could be that El-Bernameg simply has to return to its former home, YouTube. The long-term damage of such a move needn’t be so great. A spoof video on the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia set to a Bob Marley tune, “No woman, no drive”, has been seen by almost ten million people, bypassing press rules. It’s unlikely that Egyptians No laughing matter: a Morsi supporter denounces his trial on 4 November have had their last laugh.

No laughing matter: a Morsi supporter denounces his trial on 4 November. Image: Getty

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Photo: Getty
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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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