What would happen if you spent 30 years making fun of the same man? What if for the last decade, you had been mocking his imminent death -- and yet he continued to stay alive, making all your jokes about his immortality seem a bit too uncomfortably close to the truth?
Egyptians, notorious for their subversive political humor, are currently living through this scenario: Hosni Mubarak, their octogenarian president, is entering his fourth decade of rule, holding on to power and to life through sheer force of will. Egyptian jokers, who initially caricatured their uncharismatic leader as a greedy bumpkin, have spent the last 10 years nervously cracking wise about his tenacious grasp on the throne. Now, with the regime holding its breath as everyone waits for the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak to die, the economy suffering, and people feeling deeply pessimistic about the future, the humor is starting to feel a little old.
A friend of mine has a favorite one-liner he likes to tell: "What is the perfect day for Mubarak? A day when nothing happens." Egypt's status-quo-oriented president doesn't like change, but his Groundhog Day fantasy weighs heavily on Egyptians. Mubarak has survived assassination attempts and complicated surgery. After he spent most of the spring of 2010 convalescing, everyone in Cairo from taxi drivers to politicians to foreign spies was convinced it was a matter of weeks. And yet he recovered, apparently with every intention of running for a sixth term in September. Egypt's prolific jesters, with their long tradition of poking fun at the powerful, might be running out of material.
Making fun of oppressive authorities has been an essential part of Egyptian life since the pharaohs. One 4,600-year-old barb recorded on papyrus joked that the only way you could convince the king to fish would be to wrap naked girls in fishing nets. Under Roman rule, Egyptian advocates were banned from practicing law because of their habit of making wisecracks, which the dour Romans thought would undermine the seriousness of the courts. Even Ibn Khaldun, the great 14th-century Arab philosopher from Tunis, noted that Egyptians were an unusually mirthful and irreverent people. Egyptian actor Kamal al-Shinnawi, himself a master of comedy, once said, "The joke is the devastating weapon which the Egyptians used against the invaders and occupiers. It was the valiant guerrilla that penetrated the palaces of the rulers and the bastions of the tyrants, disrupting their repose and filling their heart with panic."
And there has been plenty of material over Egypt's last half-century, marked as it has been by a succession of military leaders with little care for democracy or human rights. While Egyptians may be virtually powerless to change their rulers, they do have extensive freedom to mock, unlike in nearby Syria, where a wisecrack can land you in prison. In Egypt's highly dense, hypersocial cities and villages, jokes are nearly universal icebreakers and conversation-starters, and the basic meta-joke, transcending rulers, ideology, and class barriers, almost always remains the same: Our leaders are idiots, our country's a mess, but at least we're in on the joke together.
Egypt's rulers before Mubarak, Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser and Nobel Peace Prize winner Anwar Sadat, were flamboyant characters, and the jokes told about them reflected their larger-than-life personas. The paranoid Nasser was said to have deployed his secret police to collect the jokes made up about him and his iron-fisted leadership, just as the KGB anxiously monitored the fabled kitchen-table anekdoty about its gerontocratic leadership to really understand what was happening in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Sadat, though best known in the West for making peace with neighboring Israel, was the butt of joke after joke about his corrupt government and attractive wife, Jehan.
When Mubarak came to power after Sadat's assassination, he was received with a mixture of relief and skepticism -- relief because he appeared to be a steadier hand than Sadat, who grew increasingly paranoid in the year before his death, and skepticism because Mubarak was the opposite of anything like the charismatic leadership that Sadat and Nasser embodied. Mubarak was also, at least early on, something of a joker himself. Not long into his reign, he quipped that he had never expected to be appointed vice president. "When I got the call from Sadat," he told an interviewer, "I thought he was going to make me the head of EgyptAir."
For decades many derided Mubarak as "La Vache Qui Rit" -- after the French processed cheese that appeared in Egypt in the 1970s along with the opening up of Egypt's markets -- because of his rural background and his bonhomie. The image that dominated Mubarak jokes during that period was that of an Egyptian archetype, the greedy and buffoonish peasant. One joke I remember well from the 1980s played off Mubarak's decision not to appoint a vice president after he ascended to the presidency: "When Nasser became president, he wanted a vice president stupider than himself to avoid a challenger, so he chose Sadat. When Sadat became president, he chose Mubarak for the same reason. But Mubarak has no vice president because there is no one in Egypt stupider than he is."