Egypt protest - AP - 11/2/2011
Anti-government protesters outside the Egyptian TV headquarters in Cairo, Feb. 11, 2011. Photo by AP
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CAIRO - At the height of the demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, people would keep sheets of paper of different sizes on which they wrote jokes that they had invented. Demonstrators would gather round, laugh, take pictures and then invent their own variations.

Now that the square is once more open to traffic, people have returned to their traditional modes of joke-telling - via conversations, emails or text messages. The problem is that when someone tells a joke outside of a certain sociological, linguistic or geographical context, sometimes an explanation is needed, and that kills the joke. But if we don't mention the jokes we've heard here, we will betray our journalistic role.

Some 20 years ago, I learned from Gazans that their neighbors, the Egyptians, "always make up jokes." That was a partial response to the question of why the Gazans themselves always know how to make themselves and others laugh with some sort of amusing witticism concerning their terrible situation. And when does one know that the awful situation has become even worse? When the supply of jokes runs out.

In the past 15 years, the Egyptians had stopped creating new jokes. At least that's what I heard, to my total surprise, from historian Khaled Fahmi, who has also provided us with fodder for several more articles. Other people have confirmed that in recent times, there was merely one joke or so that circulated every half year, like the following: "The people keep saying good-bye to me," says President Mubarak. "Where are they going?"

That joke, I was told, was made up around the time of the last elections, although it's hard to know exactly. But it cannot compare with the creative volcano of new jokes that took place in the past month. For example, "Mubarak wants to overthrow his people," one person wrote, in a variation of the catchy slogan of the Tunisian revolution, "The people want to change the regime," which millions of Arabic speakers are repeating.

There was also the caricature drawn on a sheet of paper and displayed by one of the hundreds of thousands of people in the square, depicting Mubarak sitting on an armchair opposite a television set. The masses are chanting "The people want to overthrow the regime," while Mubarak insists: "My name is not 'regime.'"

Another amusing wisecrack concerning the failure of the president to understand his people's message also appeared on a placard held up during the demonstrations, which attracted TV cameras from all over the Arab world. When the words could be seen in a close-up, viewers in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank probably enjoyed them most: "Speak to him in Hebrew," the text said. "Maybe then he'll understand the word 'leave.'"

By the way, everyone probably noticed that during this revolution there were none of the ritual, hackneyed slogans against Zionism and imperialism. The collective revolutionary decision that was taken, without instructions from above or other sorts of directives, was that no one should be allowed to bandy about slogans that detracted from the main point: the regime and its ouster. But in the above example, criticism of the subordination of Mubarak's regime to Israeli policy was dressed up as a joke.

Someone else came up with the another variation of it, but without the same political sting. On the top of a poster, some signs were drawn that apparently meant "leave!" Below was written: "In hieroglyphics, maybe you'll understand, Pharaoh."

On another placard, Mubarak was asked - ostensibly by the Egyptian association of carpenters - which glue he used. On one occasion when the masses were expecting the president to make a speech announcing his resignation but it didn't materialize, the following one-liner passed among the protesters like wildfire: "Mubarak needs an operation to separate him from the chair."

In the past few days, now outside the square, humorous revolutionaries have been reminding the next generation of rulers of their presence, by declaring: "From now on, the chairs of the rulers will be made of Teflon."

Ever since Omar Suleiman was appointed Mubarak's deputy, every time he appeared on TV (which has not done in the past week ), an unidentified person would appear behind him. No one knew who it was. People began to exchange sarcastic remarks. This is not fair to his family, others would protest; they must be offended. Last Thursday the following text message began making the rounds via mobile telephones: "The man behind Omar Suleiman: I wish to announce that I have nothing to do with Mr. Suleiman and I don't know him. He is just the man that is standing in front of me."

Judging by what can be seen on the mobile telephones and Facebook pages of people around here, the fact that the country is being run now by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has not yet become the brunt of any jokes. The tanks are still being deployed in different parts of the city and soldiers are continuing to exchange smiles with citizens. In places of particular friction, however, the tanks assume a more threatening posture. For example, in the town of Mahallah el-Koubra in the Nile Delta, where textile workers continued their strike despite demands from the army and business community that they stop, a tank stands at the entrance to their factory and policemen forbid journalists to approach.

Meanwhile, the armed forces have sent a text message to all subscribers to mobile telephone services, calling on honest citizens to join the effort to bring Egypt to a safe haven. ("Safe haven" is code for: "Stop making problems, the revolution is over, now let the adults run the business" ).

On Thursday a text message appeared, ostensibly from the armed forces, addressed to all honest citizens: "Anyone who has not yet been photographed next to a tank is requested to hurry up and do so." Is this a hint to the army that the people want a civilian regime - and fast?