Political satire is, historically, a great propeller of social movements. As Srdja Popovic, a leader of Optor, the Serbian resistance movement, said:
Everything we did [had] a dosage of humor. Because I’m joking. You’re becoming angry. You’re always showing only one face. And I’m always again with another joke, with another action, with another positive message to the wider audience. And that’s how we collected the third party in the whole story — which is very important — the publicity, the people on the ground.
Nowhere has this been more true that in the pro-democracy movements in Tunisia and Egypt: While humor was potent contraband in the 23 and 30 years, respectively, of dictatorship in those countries, the increased breathing room afforded by their revolutions has allowed it to expand.
SATIRE IS NOTHING NEW
In Tunisia, where the Arab Spring in many ways began, a satirical comic book series on Facebook is gathering buzz. Called “Captain Khobza,” (spelled 5OBZA) it features a masked, Zorro-like character who goes around with a baguette rather than a weapon in order to promote and highlight the importance of non-violent action.
Its creators see the series as an important tool to prevent a backslide on freedom of expression in post-uprising Tunisia. As they told Reuters: “We are complementing the revolution with this comedy because we don’t want there to be any retreat in any way on the issue of freedom of expression.”
And formerly apolitical comics have also jumped on the bandwagon. The most prominent example of this is Migalo, who started out as a football satirist but has switched topics since the Tunisian uprising.
In some ways, this isn’t new. As Behedinne Hajri, a Tunis-based activist, told me, “Tunisians are satirical natives … and all kind of satirical programs have a lot of fans … Some are caricatures such as this one, some are radio sketches, and some are inspired by [the American television series] ‘South Park.’”
Satire on the radio and on the streets was tolerated to varying degrees under dictatorship. Social media, however, increases the impact of political satire that formerly existed only on radio. As Youssef Cherif, a student in Tunis, put it:
Satirical anecdotes were common to Tunisia, even though not as open [as now]. We always had jokes about the “cop-president and his hairdresser wife,” [but] I am not sure if these radio shows had political impact … The big impact comes from the Facebook pages that disseminate pictures and videos (old or new) and that are touching the population.
While radio is still important, it’s the availability of this content on Facebook (and the speed with which it can spread there) that’s key.
POST–UPRISING INCREASE IN SATIRICAL MEDIA
Regardless of medium, there’s been a definite uptick in all political comedy since January in Tunisia.
“A lot of people tried to express themselves by making funny critiques of the government,” Wael Ben Slimene, another Tunisian activist, said. “It’s a way to make sure that freedom of expression will remain.”
Similar trends are apparent in Egypt. Take a look around Tahrir Square nowadays in Cairo, and you’ll see plenty of caricatures and wordplay. Likewise, a Cairo-based English-language “fake news” website called El Koshary Today, modeled on The Onion, the successful satirical news network in the United States, has attracted a dedicated and growing fan base. Recent fare includes, “How To Become a Political Activist in Egypt“ and “Egypt’s National Security Agency Helps Former Torturers Find Inner Child.”
Humor threaded the 18 days of the Egyptian uprising as well. According to a recent (informal and not statistically significant) survey on media use during the uprising, people were trafficking jokes nearly as much as they were sending logistical information. On Facebook, 35 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes in their news feeds, compared with 42 percent who said they had used the news feeds to get information about where to go and when. Similarly, 20 percent of respondents reported receiving jokes over their mobile phones, which isn’t too far below the 32 percent who got coordination instructions over the phone. Humor was likely as important a morale booster and motivator during those 18 days of protest as it is today during the continued revolution.
In political environments marked by citizens struggling to move forward with revolution, people are using satirical media not just to hold onto increased political space but to push for more freedoms.
Cartoon screenshot from this satirical blog.
Susannah Vila is the Director of Content and Outreach at Movements.org. Get in touch with her at [email protected] or connect with her on Twitter to @szvila