Sassy Egyptian puppet parries repression with wit

Abla Fahita, a sassy puppet character, who was previously investigated for ‘spying’ in Egypt, has turned her vicious wit on the country’s autocratic regime and its unrelenting crackdown on freedom of expression.

The puppet plays a gossipy, acid-tongued widow on a weekly comedy show, Live from the Duplex, broadcast on Egypt’s privately-owned, pro-regime CBC network. Usually, the show encodes cultural critiques and often subversive social commentaries; it also contains a certain amount of double entendre and sexual innuendo. But Abla Fahita clearly could not keep her mouth shut on the repression that touches not only Islamists but people from across the political and social spectrum and all ages in Egypt.

With her puppet tongue firmly in cheek, Abla Fahita turns to two men-supposedly plainclothes policemen looking over her shoulder—to ingratiate herself to them by overpraising the state of freedom of expression in the country.

She is thankful that she is safe—implying that she escaped the regime’s indiscriminate, unpredictable repression that drove into prison writers like Fatima Naoot and Ahmed Naji and TV host Islam al-Behiri—the three sentenced to prison on charges of “contempt of religion”, “violation of public modesty” and blasphemy respectively.

The random hand of repression struck even CBC’s pro-regime TV host Khairi Ramadan, taking his high-profile programme off the air as a punishment for remarks that a guest on his show made, questioning the sexual morality of women in southern Egypt.

The comments caused consternation for being arguably “offensive” to this segment of society. With a trenchant sarcasm, the wily puppet says she won’t say a word about any place in Egypt—a country “full of taboos”.

“Tonight I am in a celebratory mood not only because of the start of the new season. But we'll have to celebrate not having been accused of apostasy, or jailed and not having fled the country. We're actually experiencing the height of freedom of expression…I’d better shut up."

“Fatima Naoot, Islam Al-Behiri, Ahmed Nagi and others are all in jail. Even Khairy Ramadan’s programme was taken off the air. Even Khairy Ramadan…For this reason I won’t come near three taboo topics this season—religion, politics and sex but also the military, the police, the president, the ministers, parliament and the official TV, southern Egypt, northern Egypt, the Suez Canal region, the judiciary and fate and literally everything. Egypt is now full of taboos."

She turns to the two men standing behind her to say “your company is most welcome”.

“So, I will leave aside those trivialities to turn my attention to important issues—sports for example ping pong. Let’s hope it does not have its Ultras fans [who might get offended]. Let’s start the racy game between Alaa and Salah. One hit by Alaa and another by Salah. One from Alaa and from Salah. One from Alaa; one from Salah; one from Alaa and one from Salah…ping pong. This is what the Egyptian media will be like if we all toe the line to make a living…let’s go back to a ping from Alaa and a pong from Salah."

She turns to the security agent to ask: “Hey Sir, are the shorts they are wearing OK or are they considered offensive to public morale?....I can have them wear night dresses or even a negligee, if you wish. Would you want Alaa or Salah to win the game. I’ll do whatever you say.”

 In the climate of paranoia about potential enemies and a patriotism frenzy, Abla Fahita was investigated for terrorism in 2014. Her innocuous lines in a Vodafone commercial were interpreted as coded messages to the banned Muslim Brotherhood organisation.

The bizarre accusations were made by a pro-regime TV host who filed a legal complaint, which was forwarded to special terrorism prosecutors. Abla Fahita and Vodafone officials were questioned and the charges were dropped after stirring a nationwide furore; some Egyptians actually believed that a puppet could be a spy…