Among the various traits that characterise the period after the 30 June uprising in Egypt is an obvious fear of sarcasm and satire. The incident that took place last week on the anniversary of the 25 January, and the amount of anger it stirred up, were not isolated events. In the past two years, the Egyptian society and the state have practiced opened hostility to opposition, satire, and diversity. Those who dared to break away from mainstream patterns were confronted by vicious and violent responses.
Acts of satire have been met with litigious and punitive rejoinders, while opposition has been met with repressive laws and a rigid patriotic discourse that pre-defines and tailors national interest according to a narrow self-righteous vision.
I am not interested in discussing the aspects of civil liberties, freedom of expression, or the limit of criticism. I personally believe that there is nothing new to be said about all those aspects. Egypt is becoming increasingly repressive and its public sphere is disappearing. The wave of anger and hostility created by giving inflated condom to soldiers is not a new episode in this morally conservative and propaganda-inspired frenzy.
After all, a state that cracks down on peaceful collective action by all possible means, uses violence against political opposition, politicises judicial rulings, and constantly narrows the space for social and political research while hunting down researchers and journalists is not expected to tolerate sarcasm or to accept alternative political visions. However, the response of the media and some segments of Egyptian Society has been interesting.
Satire in Egypt is usually confronted by a wave of moral opposition. Specifically in the past two years, this moral opposition has wrapped itself in a nostalgic framework, one that mourns the lost values of the once virtuous Egyptian society. This nostalgic moral critique is not only directed at sarcasm, it extends to collective behaviour, individual choices, and even basic human rights.
Ultras groups are blamed for their immoral cheering; people with tattoos are criticised for their lack of proper religious foundation; political satirists are accused of treason due to an absence of proper patriotism. This trend points to a society that lacks all forms of social tolerance, denies individuality, dwells in an uninterrogated double standard, and dearly values conformity. Moreover, the influence of patriarchy in Egyptian society and politics cannot be ignored in shaping public perceptions of satire.
The moral nostalgia bloc yearns for a state of morality that I am not sure ever existed. I have lived in Egypt for over 30 years and have carefully studied Egyptian society and its history but I have failed to find this moral utopia that the Egyptian media has been mourning for the past two years.
I would also argue that social phenomena are not static and that a matrix of collective morals and values cannot be upheld over a long period of time. There is a huge difference between laws and values. While laws and the behaviours they entail could be static, values and morals are a product of a multitude of factors that are constantly reconfigured by interactions between social forces and dominant political dynamics. Therefore, moral nostalgia is nothing but an empty lie to maintain a defunct status quo and resist necessary change.
While political satire could fall within the same framework as other new social phenomena, it is governed by a number of different dimensions. In the past two years, the state has issued decrees to criminalise insulting state institutions. Like many other decrees issued during this period, the terminology was evasive and unclear. What exactly defines an insult? what is the rationale behind the definition? You will find neither of these facets in the decree.
However, laws that supposedly protect the state’s prestige reflect a belief that satire belies state legitimacy, shaking the state image of superiority. Mocking in itself is not a crime but mocking the state and its institutions is. But seriously, how vulnerable could a state’s legitimacy be that a joke would be able to shake its sovereign foundations?
Whether the morally nostalgic like it or not, the value structure of Egyptian society is changing. It is not a question of better or worse, it is simply a matter of mere difference. Egypt has never been a moral utopia and cracking down on diversity and satire is not about to make it one. Finally, satire will never undermine the legitimacy, sovereignty, or prestige of a state. What will undermine these factors is the state’s actions. However, what does indeed boost a state’s legitimacy is the rule of law, accountability, transparency, and respect for human rights and diversity.
Ziad A. Akl is a political analyst and sociologist. He is a senior researcher at the Egyptian Studies Unit in Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.