#Brexit: Mujahideen gallows humour & Egypt’s Bassem Youssef on empire


Bassem Youssef in Tunis. Photo: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Here’s a post-Brexit message from one radical Islamist to another. Transmitted via Telegram, a cloud-based instant messaging service, the note is funny enough to make anyone almost like these fellows: “The mujahideen will keep their cells in UK separate from EU in respect of #Brexit”.

Who would’ve thought that “the mujahideen” would have a sense of humour? It is, admittedly, gallows humour of the sort that sees the comic irony of someone else’s bad situation. But it’s also a nuanced, satirical view of how the world changes.

I was reminded of the power of satire the day after the Brexit result was announced, when Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef performed in Tunis.

Youssef with his selfie stick on Facebook Live in Sidi Bou Said, Tunis

Mr Youssef, who’s often called the “Egyptian Jon Stewart”, asked some Britons in the front row how they were feeling after the Brexit result. “After centuries of dividing the world, now Britain is dividing itself. Divide and rule. Karma is a bitch,” he laughed. Or words to that effect.

And you know, the comic went on, all these years of colonialism and we didn’t realize that all we had to do was vote.

This is shrewd satire at its best. Encapsulating the world’s experience of the British Empire – with all its canny divide and rule strategies, its racialist underpinnings, its callous disregard of the interests of the “natives”. But the Empire, of course, was of its time, and modern Britain (and modern Britons) can’t be constantly harried on the basis that they’re its inheritors.

That’s the point of satire though, isn’t it? Unlike sarcasm, it roots for positive change because it exposes the follies and weaknesses of a system. Sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or taunt someone. Though both draw attention to weaknesses – in people, societies, whole pathologies – sarcasm seeks to belittle and bring down. Satire to raise up.

The tragedy of the Arab world is that there is not enough satire, the most powerful weapon against dictatorships, incompetent systems and societal decay.