The moment has passed, damped by the recognition that for many people life today is even harder than before, especially for the poor.
The jokes have stalled, another sign that Egypt's revolution has too.
For centuries, Egyptians have turned to humour, often dressed up in dark sarcasm, as a tonic for a battered soul. But even that seemingly genetic predisposition to mock what ails them started to wear thin after nearly three decades of stagnation under Hosni Mubarak.
And then came the Tahrir Square revolution, a virtual force of nature that unleashed the ambitions and anger of millions, ousted an entrenched autocrat and inspired a resurgence of that famously biting Egyptian wit. It was in the placards, the slogans, the banners and the antics; it was passed along through the Internet, text messaging and even local newspapers.
“A lot of people think the humour went down three or four years ago, when people got depressed, and that it resurfaced in Tahrir Square,” said Isandr Amrani, a popular blogger and independent journalist in Egypt.
There were placards: “Go, because I need to study,” and “I'm a dentist here to uproot Mubarak.” And historical observations: “Nasser was killed by poison, Sadat by a bullet and Mubarak by Facebook.”
But now that moment has passed, damped by the recognition that for many people life today is even harder than before, especially for the poor and for those who survive on tourism like the army of taxi drivers who are forced to battle ever worsening traffic for ever fewer passengers.
“No one is joking,” said Mohamed Saleh Mohamed, as he navigated a taxi through downtown Cairo's congested streets recently. “There is no happiness, no work. The country is a mess.”
The sudden turn from humour points to a sense of revolution fatigue that has swept over a nation where people had hoped for overnight change only to awaken to the myriad challenges facing them.
Many people here say that no one has given up, not yet anyway, they are just catching their breath and recalibrating to the changing realities of post-revolutionary Egypt.
“This victory has not achieved its goals,” said Hassan Naffa, a political science professor at Cairo University. “There is some depression, and in these gray stages there is no clear idea about what should be done. There is division, there are expectations, there is waiting.”
The glow of people power that toppled the President has not vanished, but it has dimmed. After 30 years of predictable discomfort, the public is not accustomed to so much uncertainty.
There are signs of increased sectarian tensions. The economy is in deep trouble. The crime rate is rising. The military is suddenly not looking like such a good guy any longer, accused of using beatings, torture and military tribunals to silence critics. And there are far too many reminders of the past, like the state security apparatus that, though renamed, is effectively functioning as before with mostly the same personnel.
“We're still not heading in the right direction,” said Karim el-Borollossy, 52, a businessman who joined the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. “The head of the regime is gone, but the old regime was so entrenched in every aspect of life, it did not disappear.”
There was a renewed sense of national purpose in the heady days of revolution, a unity regardless of religion or class among those massing in the square. In those 18 days, humour and sarcasm played a crucial role in coping and conquering.
“Mubarak's people threw rocks,” said Fahmy Howeidy, a well-known columnist and social commentator referring to thugs who threw stones at demonstrators. “The people charged Mubarak with jokes and comedy.”
At least some of that was planned.
“There was a lot of spontaneous humour it is the Egyptian character but there also was a desire to show that the demonstrators weren't just angry young men, that they weren't just seen as Islamists,” said Mr Amrani, the blogger.
The organizers used humour as part of their communications strategy, to motivate people and bring out the crowds, he said.
“We had the kids writing slogans, caricatures, stuff like that,” said Laila Soueif, a prominent rights advocate and a math professor at Cairo University. “It was really one of the main tools, it was one of our main weapons.”
She said that when military jets swooped overhead, terrifying the crowd, the young people “started jumping up and down chanting, ‘Hosni has gone mad, Hosni has gone mad,' so they made it a joke, and everyone stopped being scared.”
Making fun was easy, the organisers said, with bizarre events like a charge into the square by men on horseback and camels, which was flashed around the world. Minutes after the dust cleared, the protesters assembled a sort of shrine decorated with items ripped away from the men as they rode by.
“I went to the square every day looking for a new joke,” said Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a former youth leader in the Muslim Brotherhood who quit the organisation two years ago. “Egyptians are quite used to expressing themselves through jokes and humour because that was often the only way to express ourselves.”
The surge of revolutionary humour was already beginning to slow, many people said, when Egyptians voted on a referendum to the Constitution that would speed up the election of a Parliament and President.
The vote served as a wake-up call to many secular, liberal activists involved in the revolution, who had campaigned against the referendum because they thought they needed time to build organisations to compete with established groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
When the referendum passed, there was an uptick of humour sarcasm, really that was not unifying, indicative of re-emerging divisions.
“Businesses should turn to importing ankle-length galabiyas, beards and head scarves from China,” went one quip, a reference to religious garb.
“Women will not be allowed to vote, as their voices are considered obscene,” went another.
And then the humour seemed to stall altogether.
On a recent afternoon, Ibrahim Senussi sat with two friends in a bustling outdoor cafe squeezed into a dusty alley between two rundown buildings. All three insisted they did not have any new jokes and did not feel up to telling any old ones.
“We're just looking forward now,” said Mr. Senussi, 33, who nevertheless could not resist one last shot at Mubarak.
“Mubarak was a man who united all religions,” he said, “because he degraded the Muslims, he degraded the Christians and he degraded the Jews.”
He grinned, quite satisfied with himself. — New York Times News Service