Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring

15 January 2018

Shiri Avni

“Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring” is a humorous and heartbreaking 2017 autobiography by the Egyptian standup comedian Bassem Youssef, retailing his transition from a doctor to a beloved comedian, to a refugee in the USA. It’s a read that makes you wonder at the hypocrisy of people and is given as a warning tale to people who become politically apathetic.

youssef bassem

Bassem Youssef
Photo from Salt.

Phase 1: Protests Break Out

The book starts out humorously. When protests in Egypt break out in January 2011, the government initially tries to pretend that the protests (and hence, the problem) don’t exist. The government goes as far as demanding that news reporters not cover the issue at all on the nightly shows. However, as Youssef notes,

sometimes, if you switched on the television you would see the cameras fixed on an empty bridge or a tranquil view of the Nile. [But] one channel’s producer was so dumb that on a day when the camera was fixed on one of those bridges, he didn’t realize that at the top of the screen, on another bridge, huge clashes between protestors and security forces were taking place!”

Phase 2: Internet & TV Standup

Following the protests and Mubarak’s ousting in February, Youssef starts creating political satire, filmed from the laundry room of his apartment (resourceful, right?). He posts his content online, and his sharp wit and clever remarks quickly make him popular - by June 2011 he has been given his very own standup show on Egyptian television.

However, things don’t stay bright for long. The owner of the television channel, Sawiris, begins getting death threats due to Youssef’s laughing of Islamist figures. With Sawiris’ officies being attacked and Sawiris being forced to send his children abroad for safety, Youssef has to cancel an episode ridiculing the Islamists. It takes a lot of courage for Youssef to continue producing his show, and things only continue to get harder as the book progresses.

Phase 3: Elections

With Mubarak out of power, parliamentary elections are set to take place in November. Quickly, extreme political parties form, and the support they garner is scary to read about. In particular, the Salafi party is so extreme that the conferences they held for women (and for women’s issues) do not allow for any women speakers, so men speak instead. On the Salafi’s television commercials, men are depicted explaining concepts to a 7 year old girl, because “if she was any older than that, it would have been required to pixilate her face.” Although the Salafi party is required by law to have female candidates, they refuse to include photos of women on their banners, and instead place images of flowers instead of female faces on the party posters.

Despite all of the liberals’ efforts to raise awareness about the need to separate religion and government, the election results are grim: the two leading parties are the Muslim Brotherhood (38%) and the Salafi party (28%). In his book, Youssef gives an in-depth explanation of why he thinks people elect candidates who will not represent them well. The explanations are interesting, and quite unintuitive for secular people and people who had grown up in democratic countries; I think they’re well worth a read (hint: a lot of it regards personal guilt).

Anger, Continuation, and Take Away

Throughout the book, it is both fascinating and at times horrific to read about the justifications that people will invent in order to avoid changing their beliefs and viewpoints. As an example, after the elections some protests continued to take place in Cairo. The following event occurred when the army was sent in to stop the protestors:

A young woman who wore a long black traditional dress and covered her head and face was struck and dragged to the ground. A couple of soldiers pulled back her dress while she was unconscious, and her body was exposed…One of the soldiers stomped on her…Every TV channel caught this one tape.

…the media rushed to the defense of the army…[and eventually] they blamed the assault on what the young woman was wearing. “She was wearing nothing under that black dress but a blue bra. Who does that?” they cried.

blue bra girl

Graffiti depicting the abuse of the "girl in a blue bra".
Photo from dictatorshipsandfailedstates.blogspot.com.

To find out what happened to Youssef, and to gain an inkling of insight into modern Egyptian culture, I would highly recommend this book. The one criticism I have is that Youssef often assumes the foreign reader has more knowledge of the Middle East and Egypt than is standard; but with a little bit of Googling on the side, and with Youssef’s entertaining writing, you’ll be grateful for the journey you’ve made.

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