The Politics of Fun in Egypt

Phot: Jacob Høigilt, PRIO

Yes, this little piece will relate to Asef Bayat’s gem of an article ‘Islamism and the politics of fun.’ But first a comment on the current goings-on in Egypt.

The last time I visited the country, in early February, the news about the murder of Giulio Regeni broke. The Italian PhD student was tortured for a week and then killed. The Egyptian security authorities deny that they have been involved, but nobody believes them, just as nobody believes them when they claim they do not abduct Egyptian citizens – the so-called ‘forced appearances.’ The murder of Regeni was chilling to Western scholars, because this is the first time the Egyptian authorities have targeted one. The message is clear: stay away, don’t meddle in our affairs (Regeni wrote about the independent labour organizations in Egypt). The Egyptian authorities’ urge to be left alone is understandable, as they continue to crush what remains of civil society in the country. This week the case against foreign-funded NGOs was reopened. Human rights and women’s rights activists, and even employees of charities, face travel bans, asset freezes and prosecution on ridiculous charges as Egypt probes new depths of authoritarianism.

There is no fun in all this, of course. Which is, I would argue, exactly why young people flocked to the 2016 EGYCon in February. The ComiCon, arranged for the third time this year, is a festival devoted to anime, comics, cosplay, gaming and music, and it is hugely popular. It took place at the American University in Cairo’s old Greek campus in downtown Cairo, and the big courtyard between the buildings was packed with people. The most devoted, of which there were quite a lot, had obviously spent many hours designing and making their costumes, and I encountered a number of American superheroes and manga characters – and even Rohrschach, the anti-hero of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s masterpiece Watchmen. What is so sympathetic about EGYcon is that its whole raison d’etre is to have fun: innocent, raucous fun, whether it consists of dressing up like your favourite comics or animation character, singing karaoke to Japanese manga soundtracks (there was a BIG stage with continuous activities) or hacking your friends to pieces in the video game Mortal Kombat. EGYcon obviously offers young people a respite from a dreary and frightening socio-political reality.

But this is not the only reason I felt so happy as I stood on the stairs of the old AUC library looking out over the colourful crowd, listening to a hopelessly out-of-tune karaoke version of some Japanese pop song. Enter Asef Bayat.

According to him, fun is an affront to any exclusivist system (even though he singles out Islamism for in-depth treatment). Such systems tend to nurture ideals of discipline and control. For example, the Iranian Islamists propagated the Islamist “ideal man”: “heavy, austere, warrior-like, controlled, resolute, selfless, and highly emotional—in short, an extraordinary personality who stood against the expression of lightness, carefreeness, and spontaneity, in a word, ordinariness.” Take a look at any of President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s televised speeches and find seven likenesses with this description… The austere messages of the ruling security establishment in Egypt are inconspicuously challenged by fun events such as EGYcon, and this is what makes their existence and popularity so heartening. As Bayat concludes, “Fun disturbs exclusivist doctrinal authority because, as a source of instantaneous fulfillment, it represents a powerful rival archetype, one that stands against discipline, rigid structures, single discourse, and monopoly of truth.”

The Egyptian regime is not an ideological one; it is just obsessed with securing its own privileges and maintaining stability. This is probably why events like EGYcon and Cairocomix, another recently-established comic festival, have so far been spared. Their existence are proof that Egyptians still know how to enjoy themselves under a joyless regime, and offers hope that the inherently tolerant and good-natured culture of fun may in the end prevail over the military Dark Side.

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