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."
THE JOKES TURNED BITTER in the 1990s as Mubarak consolidated his power, started winning elections with more than 90 percent of the vote, and purged rivals in the military. One oft-retold story had Mubarak dispatching his political advisors to Washington to help with Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign after the U.S. president admires Mubarak's popularity. When the results come in, it is Mubarak who is elected president of the United States.
But Mubarak jokes really settled into their current groove in the early 2000s, when Mubarak entered his mid-70s and a nationwide deathwatch began. One joke imagines a deathbed scene, the ailing Mubarak lamenting, "What will the Egyptian people do without me?" His advisor tries to comfort him: "Mr. President, don't worry about the Egyptians. They are a resilient people who could survive by eating stones!" Mubarak pauses to consider this and then tells the advisor to grant his son Alaa a monopoly on the trade in stones.
In another deathbed scene, Azrael, the archangel of death, comes down to Mubarak and tells him he must say goodbye to the Egyptian people. "Why, where are they going?" he asks. Azrael is a common figure in such jokes, the most famous of which is a commentary on the increasingly brutal turn the Mubarak regime took in the 1990s:
God summons Azrael and tells him, "It's time to get Hosni Mubarak."
"Are you sure?" Azrael asks timidly.
God insists: "Yes, his time has come; go and bring me his soul."
So Azrael descends from heaven and heads straight for the presidential palace. Once there, he tries to walk in, but he is captured by State Security. They throw him in a cell, beat him up, and torture him. After several months, he is finally set free.
Back in heaven, God sees him all bruised and broken and asks, "What happened?"
"State Security beat me and tortured me," Azrael tells God. "They only just sent me back."
God goes pale and in a frightened voice says, "Did you tell them I sent you?'
It's not only God who is scared of Mubarak -- so is the devil. Other jokes have Mubarak shocking the devil with his ideas for tormenting the Egyptian people, or dying and being refused entry to both heaven and hell because he's viewed as an abomination by both God and Satan.
The Internet has opened new avenues for humor. One-line zingers that used to be circulated by text message are now exchanged on Twitter, while on Facebook fake identities and satirical fan pages have been established for the country's leading politicians. Widely circulated video mash-ups depict Mubarak and his entourage as the characters of a mafia movie or unlikely action heroes, including one spoofing a Star Wars poster with Mubarak standing in for the evil Emperor Palpatine.
But the bulk of today's jokes simply stress the tenacity with which Mubarak has held onto life and power. Hisham Kassem, a prominent publisher and liberal opposition figure, told me this recent joke:
Hosni Mubarak, Barack Obama, and Vladimir Putin are at a meeting together when suddenly God appears before them.
"I have come to tell you that the end of the world will be in two days," God says. "Tell your people."
So each leader goes back to his capital and prepares a television address.
In Washington, Obama says, "My fellow Americans, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I can confirm that God exists. The bad news is that he told me the world would end in two days."
In Moscow, Putin says, "People of Russia, I regret that I have to inform you of two pieces of bad news. First, God exists, which means everything our country has believed in for most of the last century was false. Second, the world is ending in two days."
In Cairo, Mubarak says, "O Egyptians, I come to you today with two pieces of excellent news! First, God and I have just held an important summit. Second, he told me I would be your president until the end of time."
Kassem quips that the Mubarak regime's main legacy may be an unparalleled abundance of derision about its leader. "Under Nasser, it was the elite whose property he had nationalized that told jokes about the president," he told me. "Under Sadat, it was the poor people left behind by economic liberalization who told the jokes. But under Mubarak, everyone is telling jokes."
Yet an increasing number of Egyptians no longer think their country's situation is all that funny, and they are turning the national talent for wit into a more aggressive weapon of political dissidence. The anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement has used humor most poignantly to protest the indignity of an entire country becoming a hand-me-down for the Mubarak family, as the leader presses on with plans to anoint his son Gamal as his heir. Other protesters complaining about the rising cost of living and stagnating salaries use cartoons to depict fat-cat politicians and tycoons pillaging the country. And since the beginning of 2010, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a potential presidential challenger, has become a symbol of the kind of dignified leadership the Egyptian opposition has sought for decades. Notably, he recently scolded Mubarak for an inappropriate joke about a ferry crash that killed more than 1,000 Egyptians in 2006.
But even if Egypt's democrats fail to prevent the inheritance of the presidency, they will certainly keep making fun of Mubarak's son Gamal. One epic satire comes in the form of a popular blog called Ezba Abu Gamal ("The Village of Gamal's Father"). The blog is a collection of entries, usually from the perspective of Abu Gamal, mayor of a small village. He is constantly being nagged by his wife to promote his son, about whom he has misgivings; he doesn't understand all this talk about reform and laptops and so on. It is a biting portrait for those initiated into the details of Egyptian politics. Mubarak's "cunning peasant" persona re-emerges and Gamal is depicted as a wet-behind-the-ears incompetent manipulated by his friends, while countless ministers and security chiefs make appearances as craven village officials. Were it publishable in Egypt, it would make a hilarious book.