At a friend’s birthday party in Cairo recently, one of the most popular songs the DJ in the downtown bar played that night was one consisting entirely of a speech Mohamed Morsi made soon after becoming president of Egypt, to a dance beat. Everyone on the dance floor knew the words, which they would yell in between giggles of derision.
Just a few days earlier — this was in January — in response to a curfew that Morsi slapped on the canal cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailiyya, football fans arranged for matches to coincide with the start of the curfew and residents took it a step further by launching protests 15 minutes before the start of the curfew.
To understand Bassem Youssef — the heart surgeon turned comedian who has been on the receiving end of legal trouble — in his Egyptian context and not simply as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”, think of his satire as being like this kind of popular derision projected to 30 million viewers across the Arab world. Youssef faces several legal complaints and was summoned recently by a prosecutor general — who was controversially appointed by Morsi — and questioned over allegations of insulting the president, Islam and “spreading false news with the aim of disrupting public order”.
What is satire if not a marriage of civil disobedience to a laugh track, a potent brew of derision and lack of respect that acts as a nettle sting on the thin skin of the humourless? And what is revolution if not the ultimate act of derision against the established powers. This includes Islamists such as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood who for too long assumed that the prefix “Muslim” would immunise their movement from the kind of much needed disobedience and anti-authoritarianism we’re seeing.
The revolutions across the Middle East and north Africa did not invent humour or satire. Comedians, writers and poets would routinely lampoon dictators and their regimes but often under cover of innuendo. Post-revolution, Bassem Youssef and other comedians name names of those in power and the powerful. It’s exactly because they neither respect nor obey that they have become targets of thin-skinned Islamists who foolishly think they’ve inherited countries unchanged since the days of Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zein El Abidine Ben Ali, and the rest. Tellingly, those who govern in Egypt and in Tunisia stand by as state and Islamist media and sermons incite against minorities and women. Yet they accept lawsuits against satirists who lampoon, among others, Islamist politicians.
Youssef’s satire lassos the powerful, while the powerful lash out against the vulnerable. Several Muslim Brotherhood officials and some from the ultra-conservative Salafi movement are on record blaming women for sexual violence at a time when street sexual harassment and assaults are at epidemic levels. Islamists also face little if any legal blowback for astounding bigotry and incitement against Egypt’s Christians. This at a time when Christians feel increasingly at risk: just this Sunday, two died in fighting outside the Coptic church’s headquarters in Cairo, after Muslims attacked Christians mourning a sectarian attack the day before.
We always knew religious fundamentalists were humourless but who knew they were so thin-skinned. The revolution has taught us much.