Mubarak: believe the jokes!

by - 11th February 2011

By Guest Blogger, Arne Fjeldstad

In highly censored societies, jokes about the rulers are important sources of gauging the national temper. They convey the unvarnished truth about public perception of a person and a regime, and offer real glimpses into the mood of the country and its culture.

During the past week the Net has come alive with funny stories about Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s despotic ruler of thirty years. During the past few days the word Mubarak, meaning ‘blessed’, has a new meaning in the Arabic dictionary: « Mubarak (n.): a psychotic ex-girlfriend who fails to understand it's over.  Or, as a verb: Mubarak (v.): To stick something to something else.  Example: I will punch you and mubarak you to the wall.»

The jokes do not offer a flattering portrait of the long time ruler (that job is reserved for the state-controlled media).  Rather, the jokes are directly critical, in a culture where criticism is often hidden or played down.  They say that under Nasser, it was the elite whose property he had nationalized who told jokes about the president. Under Sadat, it was the poor people left behind by economic liberalization who told the jokes. But under Mubarak, everyone is telling jokes.

The stupidity of Mubarak is an often repeated topic in many jokes. «Do you want to know what a perfect day for President Mubarak looks like? ‘It’s a day when absolutely nothing happens,’ according to an old Egyptian joke.  There are reasons why Mubarak did not pick a Vice-President: in all Egypt, Mubarak could not find a man dumber than himself.»

Such jokes portray the harsh reality for millions of Egyptians living in overpopulated cities with bad air, sky-rocketing unemployment rates, a sclerotic educational system, corruption and bribery as a rule rather than the exception. No wonder one story about Mubarak has it that he was on a plane with his wife and son and wanted to throw a $100 bill to his people. His wife suggested he split it so two families could use it. His son Gamal (until recently his political heir) suggested he split it in four instead, so four families could benefit. The pilot told him: «Why don't you jump out so all Egyptians can benefit . . ?»

President Mubarak’s health has been deteriorating and instantly became a favorite topic in many jokes. In the early 2000s, when Mubarak entered his mid-70s and a nationwide deathwatch began, one joke imagined a deathbed scene, the ailing Mubarak lamenting, «‘What will the Egyptian people do without me?’ His adviser tries to comfort him: ‘Mr. President, don't worry about the Egyptians. They are a resilient people who could survive by eating stones!’ Mubarak pauses to consider this and then tells the adviser to grant his oldest son Alaa a monopoly on the trade in stones.»

In a Muslim majority country, religion plays a key role in all aspects of everyday life. «Azrael, the archangel of death in Islam and popular belief, comes down to Mubarak and tells him he must say goodbye to the Egyptian people. ‘Why, where are they going?’ he asks.»

My personal favorite among all the jokes heard over the years are linked to a darker side of the Egyptian society: the omnipresent state security. Mubarak has ruled all his 30+ years by emergency laws. People were routinely arrested and jailed without any proper court case and sentence. It is approaching ten years since I first heard the name Omar Suleiman (then top security chief and now heir apparent) mentioned as ‘the power behind the throne’ and a possible successor, in private conversations with people of power in the Egyptian society. 

So a PR exercise like a visit to a state school some years back can imply much more serious issues as this story tells:

«Hosni Mubarak goes to a primary school to talk to the kids. After his talk he offers question time.

One little boy puts up his hand and Mubarak asks, ‘what is your question, Ramy?’

Ramy says, ‘I have four questions.

First: Why have you been a president for 25 years?

Second: Why don't you have a vice-president?

Third: Why are your sons taking over the country economically and politically?

Fourth: Why is Egypt in a miserable economic state and you're not doing anything about it?’

Just at that moment, the bell rings for break. Mubarak informs the kids that they will continue after the break.

When they resume, Mubarak says, ‘OK, where were we? Oh! That’s right . . . question time. Who has a question?’

A different little boy puts up his hand. Mubarak points him out and asks him what his name is.

‘Tamer,’ the boy says.

‘And what is your question, Tamer?’

‘I have six questions:

First: Why have you been president for 25 years?

Second: Why don't you have a vice-president?

Third: Why are your sons taking over the country economically and politically?

Fourth: Why is Egypt in a miserable economic state and you're not doing anything about it?

Fifth: Why did the bell ring 20 minutes early?



Dr Arne H Fjeldstad is a Norwegian journalist and editor, who was based in the Middle East for 11 years.