Poking fun, US-style, in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt — In Egypt, where the government keeps a close eye on the media and most other forms of expression — an alternative has emerged: fake news.

Similar in style to Western satirical newspapers and websites, such as the The Onion, the English-language website El Koshary Today (EKT), puts an ironic twist on Egyptian current events and makes light of more serious societal ills plaguing Egyptian society. The increasingly huge gap between Egypt’s upper and lower classes, discrimination felt by Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian community, and even Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s health are all fodder for stories with a humorous bent.

“ElBaradei reveals he is a trained Jedi master,” reads a headline on EKT’s main page in reference to the former International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamed ElBaradei who has stirred up Egypt’s political scene since announcing in December that he may be a candidate in Egypt’s 2011 presidential election.

“Indeed, some are already speculating whether ElBaradei's mastery of the 'force choke' had something to do with a recent gall bladder incident,” reads the story in reference to a recent surgery undergone by Mubarak in Germany.

While another article facetiously commemorates Police Day, a national holiday meant to honor a police force who in reality spend the majority of their day playing with their mobile phones, whistling at foreign women and, at times of civil disobedience, using violence against demonstrators.

“Samir was an unfortunate victim of spontaneous human combustion, whereupon his body suddenly caught fire for no reason in the middle of a peaceful demonstration. Here you can clearly see the zeal and care with which the police tried to stamp the fire out,” is EKT’s caption under a photo of Egyptian police beating an unarmed protester.

“Our intention is to talk about things openly and freely, and push the boundaries of things considered taboo,” wrote Makrona, one of EKT’s writers, in an email. “Is pushing the bar a motivation? Definitely. But not for its own sake, but for the sake of having a more open, easy going society.”

EKT was launched last October by a group of three Egyptian 20-somethings who use pseudonyms corresponding to the ingredients of their website’s namesake: koshary, arguably the national dish of Egypt that consists of different types of pasta and rice mixed with lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce.

And just as, according to a recent Pew Research poll, more American young people get their news from the fake news staple The Daily Show with Jon Stewart than actual news programs, EKT’s writers hope that satirizing news will make it more easy to digest.

“We wanted to write something that had some message yet was equally entertaining. So the idea of using satire and fake news was born out of that thought,” Makrona said.

However, in Egypt, speaking out against the state of affairs can have its consequences.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists Egypt in the top-10 worst countries to be a blogger, and says that many Egyptian online journalists are regularly harassed and arrested. As of last December, there are three well-known cases of bloggers sitting in Egyptian prisons for writing about social issues affecting minorities in the country, insulting Islam and insulting Mubarak.

“We do try to keep things anonymous because we want to stay under the authorities’ radar,” Makarona said. “We were a little worried that we’d be crossing some boundary with the government at first, but so far there have been no issues or threats.”

Chairperson of the American University in Cairo’s journalism and mass communications department, Naila Hamdy, said that while expression is certainly limited in Egypt, the line was becoming broader. Society — and the authorities — had become more tolerant in the past 10 years due to the advent of satellite television channels in the Arab world that forced previously sensitive topics, such as Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt, out into the open.

“My sense is that you are more likely to get in trouble if you are associated with street demonstrations,” Hamdy said in a phone interview. “If you an activist and you have a record of demonstrating, or if you are a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and you are blogging that would put you in a more likely to be harassed category then if you were just sitting at home blogging about these issues.”

Hamdy also noted that the sort of snarky humor used on EKT, more commonly used by Western satirical media, is out of touch with the majority of the Egyptian population — not the least because it is written in English.

EKT’s writers also acknowledge that while their site’s popularity has continued to grow, reaching between 1,500 and 2,000 unique visitors a day, their readers come from a very particular segment of upper-class Egyptian society.

“We are worried about alienating people, or rather making them feel like we are using our English language and privileged background to poke fun at problems that somehow ‘we are above,’” Makarona said.

He added: “We don’t want to sound elitist, whilst belittling others. That’s not our intention.”

Nevertheless, there is one thing that EKT readers agrees on:

“You guys are awesome!” reads a post on EKT’s Facebook fan page. “Actually awesome is an understatement!”