In 1798, after Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Egypt, some local grandees wanted to get close to him, so they gave him six slave girls. At that time, Egyptians were under the influence of the Turkish taste that considered a fulsome figure a prerequisite of feminine beauty. Napoleon was more fired up by Parisian elegance and refused to sleep with any of the women because they were, in his opinion, fat and reeking of fenugreek.
Misinterpreting his aloofness, the Egyptians mocked Napoleon for a lack of virility, contrasting him and his troops unflatteringly with the Egyptian “manhood” of Ali Kaka dolls — figurines with enormous penises. Despite such vulgarity in a conservative society, Egyptians took Kaka into their hearts and the dolls became wildly popular, even taking the form of pastries for children.
As related by a 1992 book on political humor by the journalist Adel Hammouda, editor of the independent news weekly El Fagr, it was a way for Egyptians to get back at the French general who had occupied their country. Egyptians had discovered that their strongest weapon was satire.
The scores of quips caused Napoleon to issue an edict threatening to punish anyone who told or laughed at jokes at his expense. Their subversive effect may have played a role in restoring Egyptians’ morale: Twice within the space of three years, there were revolts. One resulted in the assassination of Napoleon’s deputy, Gen. Jean Baptiste Kléber.
As far back as 1836, the English Orientalist Edward William Lane noted in his “Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians” that “the Egyptians are particularly prone to satire.” He observed how “the lower orders sometimes lampoon their rulers in songs, and ridicule those enactments of the government by which they themselves most suffer.”
In 1877, the journalist Yaqub Sanu (also known as James Sanua) founded the first satirical newspaper in Egypt, Abou Naddara. He wrote such trenchant criticism of Ismail Pasha, the Ottoman khedive (or viceroy), that the newspaper was soon suppressed. Sanua was forced into exile in France, where he resumed publication. When the khedive wrote to Sanua offering money and titles if he would desist, Sanua refused. Instead, he published the letter, causing a scandal that incensed the khedive still more.
The tradition of Egyptian political humor continued through modern times. In the aftermath of defeat in the 1967 war against Israel, Egypt’s soldiers became the object of ridicule. The jokes got so out of hand that Gamal Abdel Nasser finally called on Egyptians to stop poking fun at the army.
But Egyptians’ political jokes do not come without a price: Through the years, hundreds of artists and writers have paid heavily, with fines, imprisonment and worse, for their courageous irreverence and wit. In the 1960s, the chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, Salah Nasr, was convinced that the American Embassy in Cairo was behind the jokes going around about Nasser, by then the president. The directorate assigned dozens of offices throughout Egypt to collect the jokes and study their meaning. These were written up and sent as regular reports to the president’s office.
Nasser was an exceptional figure, who retained a legendary popularity despite being pilloried. When he died, millions of Egyptians poured onto the streets out of sorrow and respect.
Whether jokes can actually change things is much debated. Some argue that Egyptians take refuge in satire as a kind of consolation because other means of expression have been blocked. If there were genuine democracy, they say, the political joke would disappear. Others say that Egyptians simply can’t get through life without jokes — and that they will poke fun equally at leaders they like or dislike. Satire is simply a national pastime, they believe, and does not imply any particular political stance.
But humor is not always impotent or apolitical. The revolution of 2011, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak, brought satire out into the open. Mr. Mubarak was mercilessly mocked for his limited horizon, his lack of intelligence and his corruption. In particular, the networks of social media have come to be seen as a zone of satirical expression beyond the reach of the censors and bureaucratic joke collectors.
The weekly satirical television show presented by Bassem Youssef — who has been called Egypt’s Jon Stewart — is evidence of this change. For a year, Mr. Youssef ridiculed President Mohamed Morsi. After the ouster of Mr. Morsi, Mr. Youssef turned his attention to Egypt’s new ruler, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi (now a field marshal). In so doing, he incurred the ire of those who accused him of offending the dignity of the army. Yet millions of admirers and detractors alike watch his program every Friday at 10 p.m. For the first time, Egyptians are seeing their leader ridiculed on prime time while still in power.
Not everyone is laughing. After every broadcast, people write long, vituperative comments on Facebook and a battle rages on Twitter — all of which reveals the chasm between the culture of Egypt’s young revolutionaries and the mentality of those who support the military dictatorship. The former consider the president of the republic no more than a civil servant who can be criticized, held to account and mocked for his behavior. Those who cling to the old way of thinking consider the president a symbol of the state, the father of the nation, who is not to be laughed at.
Three years have passed since the revolution. It has not won power or achieved its aims. But I am optimistic about the future, because most Egyptians, in spite of their travails and problems, can still appreciate a good joke.
Alaa Al Aswany is the author of the novel “The Yacoubian Building” and other books. This article was translated by Russell Harris from the Arabic.