The Revolution of Jokes
Egyptian memes are very telling of the reality Egyptians are living while also functioning as a collective coping mechanism. Humor during times of crisis is not unique to Egypt. However, the extent to which it has become integral to the culture and language of Egypt’s changing identity through digital tools and social media is. What, if anything, do these memes tell us about contemporary Egyptian culture and what can they predict about Egypt’s uncertain future?
Media coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’ often credited social media for inciting the uprisings and helping topple regimes. While many skeptics argued the claim, technological tools undoubtedly played significant roles not only in spreading information at an uncontrollable speed, but also in providing the Arab youth with a voice they never had. Social networking, however, is not new to the region. Middle Eastern youth have been using the Internet, and Facebook in particular, as a publishing platform for news and information far before the uprising started. Groups like the April 6th Youth Movement and the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook group gained mass media attention for cultivating a new wave of Egyptian activists. They, however, emerged from an already established movement of activists and bloggers who had been active online since 2006.
What changed was the sudden absence of fear; years of government threats, detainment and torture became insignificant as the anti-government sentiment expressed by a select few grew enormously over night. The political realm suddenly became personal as more youth, confronted by a bleak future, were pushed to express their anger and instigate change. In a region where state-controlled perspectives have dominated media airwaves, a more intimate voice surfaced on a much larger scale than ever before.
Interestingly, in the midst of uprising and widespread fear, Egyptians were not only using social media to mobilize an opposition but also for spreading images that dubbed it the ‘revolution of jokes’. Their online activity supplemented the daily protests, with some online jokes eventually finding their way into signage and chants at Tahrir Square and back online again. People found it within themselves to express humor publicly in a time of crisis, revealing a lot about how the Egyptian people have coped with decades of repression.
These initial days of the revolution set the tone for how Egyptians have been expressing themselves and dealing with the political uncertainty that has ensued since. Humorous renditions opened way to a visual culture of political mockery that was almost non-existent under the Mubarak regime. In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Bassem Youssef (Egypt’s Jon Stewart) says: “Basically, we are the drama queen of the world with everything happening. We are kind of the international political soap opera. So it’s a great time, and era, to have a political satire, to comment on everything that’s happening.” Indeed, Egyptian humor has existed before any revolution began, but it has now been unleashed through alternative platforms that put it front and center. The jokes, of course, have since changed due to the transfer of power but luckily, for now, the jokers have not been silenced.
Egyptian memes are very telling of the reality Egyptians are living while also functioning as a collective coping mechanism. Surely humor during times of crisis is not unique to Egypt. What is unique, however, is the extent to which digital tools and social media platforms have become integral to the culture and language of Egypt’s changing identity. What, if anything, do these memes tell us about contemporary Egyptian culture? What do they tell us about the current Egyptian psyche, particularly in relation to other historical periods in Egypt? What can memes predict about Egypt’s uncertain future?