For Egypt's government, being funny is no laughing matter

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Political tensions remain sky high in Egypt. Today, after Friday prayers, there were more clashes between government security forces and supporters of ousted Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi. Yet despite the very serious issues at play, there were two stories making the rounds in Egypt this week that had an element of humor in them.
Jonathan Guyer follows Egyptian satire closely, and blogs about it at Oum Cartoon. He's in Cairo. So the first funny story, Jonathan, is actually a fake news item printed in the Egyptian press that was then treated as real. It involves laughing gas. Tell us about it.

Jonathan Guyer: So a new satirical news site, Marco, published a news items in which Swedish authorities cleared female protestors using laughing gas. And this was picked up widely in the Egyptian state media, in the private press, in some of the best newspapers here. And most of them didn't bother running a retraction and instead just plagiarized the story and let it go.

Werman: Don't people, don't the media, know that this an Onion-like newspaper?

Guyer:Well, they've just been launched, and the journalist who started this site was actually quite pleased that his article had been so hilariously plagiarized. But it really points to the ridiculous state of affairs, that journalists aren't telling the difference of what is a news story and what isn't.

Werman: Now the second story's about a real advertisement for mobile phones in Egypt, involving a puppet. This is almost surreal. Egyptian authorities have hauled in the creators of the ad for questioning, is that right?

Guyer: Basically there's a conspiracy blogger. You have to imagine someone more extreme than "The Drudge Report."

Werman: Let's hear a bit of the ad and then we'll come back to you.

[Audio from Egyptian ad]

Werman: Alright, Jonathan Guyer, what's going on in that ad?

Guyer: Basically there's a widow who's a hand puppet, kind of looks like a muppet, talking about her deceased husband, and there's a cactus. And this conspiracy blogger, Spider, has read into this, sort of, coded messages in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the point where this blogger was on TV, debating the puppet, on prime time the other night.

Werman: You're kidding me.

Guyer: Now this is one of the quirks, Marco, of the Egyptian legal system, that anyone can bring a complaint forward to the Prosecutor General. And that's why cartoonists and journalists and satirists have come under fire for such archaic charges as blasphemy and insulting the government. So this is just another episode of a fringe blogger, sort of, drawing attention to a non-story.

Werman: And the blogger was on a talk show with the puppet in the ad?

Guyer: Yeah, exactly. Of course, there's much bigger stories happening here in Egypt. Prominent activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, has been behind bars for six weeks. But, you know, if it takes a puppet on air to draw attention to limitations of free speech right now in Egypt, I guess we'll take it.

Werman: If it's one blogger who caused this stir, though, why is he being taken so seriously?

Guyer: Well, he appeared on a program by a gentleman, Tawfik Okasha, who's kind of like the Glen Beck of Egypt. And it garnered enough attention that now the puppet itself has a hundred thousand followers on Facebook, there's groups for and against the puppet, who is either, I don't know, a Muslim Brotherhood operative or not. And one of my favorite is a Facebook meme, a sort of viral image, of SpongeBob quivering in bed under the sheets, sort of afraid that he's next in the crackdown on cartoons.

Werman: Curiouser and curiouser. Is the ad still on the air?

Guyer: Well, it was a YouTube ad to start with, and certainly it's been shared very widely, and with the puppet itself tweeting, you know, "I am the red line," as an allusion to the limitations of free speech here.

Werman: So a fake story on the riot control properties of laughing gas, coded messages in a muppet, it's all really crazy. What do you think this all says about Egypt right now, that the government is so sensitive about fake stories, and that local media are leaping on these stories as real?

Guyer: Well, unfortunately there's been a lot of bad news coming out of Egypt for all of 2013, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum. So I think these kind of silly stories, you know, instantly pop to the front page, and are a nice distraction from the more, you know, "Four dead today in protests according to Reuters," and more tragic developments.

Werman: Jonathan Guyer, senior editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, he also blogs about Egyptian comics and caricature at Oum Cartoon. Jonathan, always great to speak with you. Thanks a lot.

Guyer: Thank you, Marco.