Humor, hijackings and revolution in Egypt

Opinion by Rhea Karuturi
April 4, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

On March 29, a domestic EgyptAir plane flying from Alexandria to Cairo was hijacked by a  man claiming that he had a suicide belt on. The flight was forced to land in Cyprus, and after a flurry of confusion, it was revealed that the belt was fake — and the hijacker, a 59-year-old man called Seif Eldin Mustafa, was allegedly using this scare tactic to reach his ex-wife in Cyprus.

That last sentence is enough to give make most people pause — because not only did this man board a plane wearing a suicide belt (even if it was fake). He then proceeded to hijack a plane with aforementioned fake suicide belt — and in the process, took some selfies — and in the end, it might have all been to meet his ex-wife.

The jokes, and the explosion of memes, were inevitable. Not only because this whole premise is ridiculous, but also because humor is so central to Egyptian society. It is commonly touted as fact that Egyptians are renowned for their sense of humor in the Arab world.

But within this explosion of jokes lies a particular brand — of the fiercely political —  that is incredibly interesting. Because while some joke about “tfw bae hijacks a plane for you,” others are deeply cynical about the state of Egypt today, and deliver scathing comments about daily realities through their humor.

Often in these jokes, like Mohamed Elsawy’s, the punchline is that going back to Egypt is worse than being in a hijacked plane. And these jokes were plenty and varied — their complaints ranging from bad network in Egypt to the state of the economy. Al Jazeera reports that the Arabic hashtag  “I wish I was with them became a top trending topic on Twitter in Egypt and that Egyptians’ complaints included the strict visa requirements imposed on Egyptian passport holders, high unemployment, the deteriorating economy, and poor government services.

This kind of humor is admittedly dark. And black humor — or gallows humor — has always inspired controversy. But there is black humor that attempts to be provocative and crude, and there is black humor that highlights the absurdity of violence, state prosecution or whatever the serious issue at hand is. The latter moves a society forward, the former is insensitive, or at best, gimmicky.

And the jokes emerging from this hijacking seem to be of the latter kind: because they are not about the hijacking really — they are about Egypt today.

On February 13, 2016, President Sisi made an announcement in Egypt: They had completed a democratic transition. But Khalil al-Anani told Al Jazeera, “It’s just rhetoric. Everybody knows that Egypt is not by any means on the right track for democracy.” Amnesty International reports that the human rights situation in Egypt continues to deteriorate under Sisi, and recently, Egypt was in the news because thousands of doctors are protesting against police brutality.

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was sparked, at least in part, to protest police brutality. Five years later, it is deeply ironic that protests against police brutality are still occurring. That irony is not lost on Egyptians, which is why their jokes are so interesting. Because, as George Orwell said, “every joke is a tiny revolution”.

Humor is a strategy of dissent — but not all forms of humor are created equal. Humor theorists outline three broad functions of humor: incongruity, relief, and superiority (Morreal, 1983). The latter two are important to politics, and the fate of a country.

A research paper by Deepa Anagondahalli and Sahar Khamis explores the uses of humor before the 2011 revolution and during the revolution itself — and their findings reveal that previously, the humor was for relief, and was used for conflict avoidance and conflict diffusion: The jokes are like safety valves for society — so pressure can be let out without any actual change taking place.

This kind of humor is important because it provides a language for dissent, dissatisfaction and scathing commentary on politics. But by itself, it is not enough for change.

During the revolution, the jokes that had been circulating for 30 years — about Mubarak’s corruption, his brutality, his lack of leadership —  came out from the private sphere and exploded into the public, painting Tahrir Square in slogans, chants and posters. Protesters weaponized their jokes to delegitimize Mubarak and his regime. As Anagondahalli and Khamis write, “People were done cracking jokes to make light of the situation; the goal now was to openly deride and ridicule Mubarak to get him to leave.”

Those jokes decided Egypt’s fate; that’s why today these new jokes reveal so much.

Because these jokes reveal the shared truth of the teller and society, and the willingness of people to change that truth. The shared truth is simple: These jokes take for granted that life in Egypt is not good. The willingness to change that is more ambiguous.

Anagondahalli and Khamis write, “covert strategies of humor are more common when there is acceptance or resignation to the status-quo. Overt strategies, on the other hand, are employed when there is active resistance to the status-quo with a focus on creating change.”

The jokes coming up around this hijacking would seem covert — they aren’t yet widespread attacks on the government, just an expression of dissatisfaction. But the very nature of the internet disrupts the definition of “covert strategies” — because these jokes are on the internet, and jokes have moved from the circles between friends to anybody who searches for your hashtag. That changes power dynamics — giving average citizens power against politicians.

These jokes work especially well because they create a sense of the absurd in what is considered the status quo. That sense of absurdity — of something wildly unreasonable and illogical, in political life translates quite easily into the unjust and the unjustifiable.

It is still uncertain what this sense of injustice, revealed by the jokes surrounding the hijacking, will bring about in Egypt over the next few years. But today the world is asking “Are Arabs ready for democracy?” — and that pessimism stems from the facts that Egypt’s journey after the revolution in 2011 has been fraught with starts and stops. But that path to today was also punctuated by protests, by debate and by incremental reform. That matters. Becomes that means Egypt isn’t simply a failed experiment in democracy, reverting to military rule. I disagree with President Sisi when he says a full democratic transition is complete, but I do believe that Egypt is changing, and for as long as they can laugh, they will keep dissenting, and they will keep fighting. And hopefully, someday that will mean the punchline of their jokes isn’t their living conditions.

Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’

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