After conquering Egypt in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte exerted a lot of effort to win the support of the local populace. His tactics ranged from issuing proclamations that he had come to liberate the people from the oppressive rule of the Ottomans and the Mamluks, to not only praising the percepts of Islam but also claiming that his intentions were to establish a global uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran, which “alone are true”. The famed French commander had full belief that his declared position would be appreciated by the Egyptians, and indeed it was, for some time. The majority of the people were amused and bewildered at this bizarre western persona who was celebrating the birth of the Islamic prophet by parading his troops clad in oriental dress and turban.
Napoleon’s efforts were most successful amongst government officials and wealthy merchants. The “Divan” went as far as granting the French commander a change of name from Napoleon Bonaparte to Ali-Bonaparte, once he declared himself to be a “worthy son of the Islamic Prophet”, hinting that he had embraced Islam. As a result, many Egyptian notables and merchants hurried to offer gifts to Ali-Bonaparte, who had come from faraway lands and appeared to be there to stay (forever), along with his matchless artillery.
The illusion, however, did not last long amongst the masses who began to question why all the French troops had not formally embraced Islam, despite their commander’s promise. And when the French commander raised the taxes on the local populace in order to continue supporting his campaign, even Ali-Bonaparte’s sincerity became a topic of angry speculation. Little by little, Egyptians realized that they were being manipulated, that their lands were occupied by infidels, and the resistance of some of the Mamluks in Upper Egypt did much to reinforce this belief. Despite rife dissatisfaction, the populace remained clueless on how to resist an army so formidable to have taken full control of their country in no time. As their fellow Egyptians throughout history have done since the time of the Pharaohs, whenever civil resistance proved costly, their alternative was to resort to satire.
An opportunity presented itself when some Egyptian notables, forever faithful to the idea of appeasing whomever ruled their country, sent off some girl slaves as favors to the French commander. In consonance with the prevailing oriental taste of the time, the women were full, leaning on fat, and probably not at all to the liking of any soldier of the republic. Ali-Bonaparte, innocently assuming there will be no consequence to the matter, modestly declined sleeping with the women openly stating that they were not to his desired taste and when the word came out, the whole of Egypt was in laughs. Simply not understanding how the allure of such lovely creatures could be resisted, overnight Egypt was filled with all sorts of anecdotes about the “impotent” French commander, his misfortunate wife and his undoubtedly effeminate troops. The frustration of the Egyptian population with the French occupation found its only outlet in an expression of patriotism through sexuality. The sexual potency of Egyptians as opposed to their “better armed but effeminate” race of conquerors eventually manifested itself in the rising popularity of a doll they called Ali-Kaka, clad in an oriental dress and with a monstrous penis. The doll boosted the morale of the population who were desperate for an outlet for their dissatisfaction, and became a symbol of Egyptian pride against the occupation. Ali-Kaka became a gift, ever so common, amongst all classes and even produced by bakeries as sweets for young children.
When the anecdotes reached Bonaparte, he became infuriated. Instead of acting sensibly and dismissing this as a trifle matter, he banned the dolls and issued edicts threatening to punish anyone who dared telling jokes or laugh at his expense. But as usually happens and as autocratic rulers always fail to learn, the banning of the anecdotes only served to give them more popularity; the jokes multiplied turning into an apparent form of civil resistance, and the local populace gained assurance knowing that they can challenge the occupation and still get away with it. Popular satire acted as a prelude to popular resistance and after a few months, the Egyptians rose against the occupation in a bloody revolt.
In January 2016, on the fifth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, many Egyptians were dejected in light of the prevailing sentiment that the revolution has failed, or is at best resting. Police brutality has resurfaced widely, possibly worse than it ever was and the anniversary, which occurs on national Police Day, a date symbolically chosen by activists to launch the revolution five years back, now signified nothing more than a lost dream. The streets were empty from demonstrators and the square that once gave hope to millions around the world was being occupied by police forces fully enforcing the reality that it was “their” day and that the country is once again autocratic.
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At the pinnacle of frustration, a young Egyptian correspondent of a satirical TV show (funnily also presented by a doll called Abla Fahita) made his way to Tahrir Square to prank the police on the ground. He handed blown out condoms to the forces claiming they were balloons and filmed the giddy smiles of the soldiers for a laugh at their expense, a satirical act of symbolic defiance. In an interesting parallel to the Ali-Kaka doll, a frustrated Egyptian resorted to mockery with sexual innuendo to get back at an institution whose demeanor against the populace could rank them as nothing less than occupiers.
Recalling a case from October 2015 where an Egyptian Facebook user was charged with “attempting to overthrow the regime” in a military court and sentenced to three years for drawing Mickey Mouse ears on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (which naturally led to the portrait going viral), most people were convinced that the correspondent would face a similar fate if not worse. Even the correspondent’s fictional employer, the doll Abla Fahita, distanced herself from the correspondent to the outrage and disdain of many of her fans. She issued a statement that he acted out on his own rather than representing the show and that she personally considered the deed offensive. But to everyone’s astonishment, the young correspondent and his collaborator were not arrested, not yet at least, and it may be that the regime favored taking a pass on the incident, given how widespread it became in both local and international media.
The doll Abla Fahita
Two months down the line, the third season of the Abla Fahita show was due to start and a teaser with a song was released as a prelude. Abla Fahita’s previous seasons had attempted to remain politically neutral by avoiding harsh criticism of the regime in fear that the authorities would ban the show, similar to what had happened back in 2014 to Egypt’s most famous satirical show. To the surprise of many, the prelude openly implied that the satirical doll is now becoming more political and that she will not shy away from criticizing even the highest ranks (alluding to the police and army). The move was considered by some as apologetic for the way Abla Fahita had dissociated “herself” from the correspondent only two months earlier. Faithful to its new approach, the first episode of the doll’s show was apparently banned as it reportedly contained direct criticism of the president’s initiative asking the populace to donate a pound a day to Egypt’s treasury. More or less keeping with the trend, the following episodes had mentions of tabooed topics like the president’s controversial national mega projects, forced disappearances of activists by the police, and allusions that though the show would want to criticize the head of the state directly, they do not, yet, dare. This is a cautious, yet progressive approach to criticism, and while not ranking in the least as revolutionary, given that the show has not even rehired the correspondent, it is somehow an important development.
More significantly, popular sarcasm directed at the president has lately soared on social media to reach a level, unthinkable just a year ago, a clear indication of widespread dissatisfaction and the public’s amassing of audacity. And while fears, nurtured by the regime and fed by state-controlled media, that another revolution would only lead the country into utter chaos, a general feeling is building slowly that Egypt is once again on the verge of “some” change. For if history has proven anything, mass scale satire is usually a prelude to something more significant and is not to be taken lightly. In this country, popular sarcasm is “merely anger without enthusiasm”.