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14 November 2013

Why jokes are wearing thin in Egypt

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

By Sophie McBain

‘‘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.

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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.