For Egypt's government, being funny is no laughing matter

The World

There's funny as in "ha-ha" and then there's funny as in: "Are you kidding me?" It's the latter that's at play in Egypt at the moment.

In the last week alone, two incidents have made Egyptians and non-Egyptians shake their heads. The first involved a fake news story placed in a new Egyptian satirical magazine, the country's first published in Arabic, The "story" told of Swedish police using laughing gas to disperse women protesters in Stockholm. It was picked up and republished in Egypt's government and independent media and treated as a real story.  

Cairo-based Jonathan Guyer is concerned.

"It really points to the ridiculous state of affairs — that Egyptian journalists can't tell the difference between a real news story and a fake one," he says.

Guyer is the senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and follows Egyptian satire in earnest. He's lived in Egypt for several years, speaks fluent Arabic, and has written scholarly pieces on Egyptian political cartoons and blogs about them at Oum Cartoon.  But Guyer is more concerned about an even more bizarre incident involving an ad for Vodafone, an international mobile phone carrier that serves the Middle East. The ad uses a popular Egyptian muppet-like puppet called Abla Fahita.

"Basically Abla Fahita is a widow," Guyer says. In the ad, Abla Fahita is speaking with someone on the phone about how to recover her late husband's SIM card. A "conspiracy blogger," an opponent of the 2011 revolution, who goes by the name of Ahmed Spider, charges that the ad is actually a series of coded messages in support of the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood.

"It's caused such a stir that the blogger was on TV the other night debating the puppet on prime time," Guyer says. 

The puppet now has more than 100,000 followers on Facebook. But less funny is the fact that the creators of the ad have been questioned by Egyptian authorities. Guyer says Egyptian law allows the extremist view of a single blogger to gain traction.

"This is one of the quirks of the Egyptian legal system, that anyone can bring a complaint forward to the prosecutor general. And that's why cartoonists and journalists and satirists have come under fire for such archaic charges as blasphemy and insulting the government."

For the record, Vodafone says the ad was meant to explain to customers how to reactivate old SIM cards. 

Guyer says the tragi-comedy over the puppet has spread online. He's read that now Sponge Bob is worried because he's yellow, the color of the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite the silliness, Guyer retains some hope, and a sense of humor.

"Of course there are much bigger stories happening here in Egypt but if it takes a puppet to draw attention to limitations on free speech, I guess we'll take it," he adds.

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