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E-Humor in Egypt: The Man Behind Omar Suleiman Meme

April 23, 2012

The man behind Omar Suleiman

The man behind Omar Suleiman

One genre of joke that emerged in the wake of the Egyptian revolution was that of “the man behind Omar Suleiman.”  It involved jokes, pictures, videos and even a song based around a mysterious figure who appeared on the crucial television broadcast in which Hosni Mubarak’s resignation was announced.

On the 18th day of protests, Omar Suleiman announced that he was going to make an emergency statement. As Egyptians everywhere anxiously huddled around their television sets to listen to the statement they had all been waiting for, many viewers’ couldn’t help but notice the stern, frowning man standing behind the vice president.

The initial jokes began by asking: who is that guy standing behind Omar Suleiman?

The answers were many. It was speculated that he was Omar Suleiman’s personal security officer, or a member of Suleiman’s political office, or an Egyptian army officer. Then the jokes began, the most widely circulated being somebody quipped “He’s the guy who owns the microphone, waiting to take it when Suleiman finishes” and the jokes started to flow.

Jokes spread not only by word of mouth but more frequently by Twitter, blogs and other social media. An Omar Suleiman hashtag was created.

Twitter, of course, lends itself to a number of satirical uses. Early on during the protests, hashtags were created for several targets of the revolution, including Hosni Mubarak and Habib Al-Adly, and these too contributed to the flow of humor:

@HosniMobarak: I wish I was cool enough to have #TheGuyBehindOmarSuleiman stand behind me.

@HabibElAdly: Too busy trying to arrest and torture #TheGuyBehindOmarSuleiman

But the joke was in many ways itself a visual joke, and it inspired visual responses. Using photoshop, people began to insert the man behind Omar Suleiman into other photos. Some of the earliest portrayed him as a career-ending angel of death, standing behind Saddam Hussein, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Qadafi.

The Man Behind Omar Suleiman (MBOS) became, in other words, a meme.

The term meme was originated by Richard Dawkins to be a general unit for culture akin to the gene as a unit for biology. As such, it’s an absurd notion (for reasons I won’t go into here). But the concept has been borrowed very effectively to refer to discrete mimetic sign that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet, via e-mail, blogs, forums, social networking sites, instant messaging and video streaming sites such as YouTube.

Ultimately five main genres emerged:

  1. Jokes that inserted MBOS into additional photos standing behind other world leaders, from Barack Obama to Martin Luther King to Adolph Hitler to George Bush.
  2. Jokes that inserted MBOS into scenes from history and elsewhere in the world
  3. Jokes that inserted MBOS into scenes from popular movies
  4. Jokes that switched the MBOS for someone else—putting the Angel of Death, the evil rabbit from Donny Darko, the Panda from a series of Egyptian dairy ads, and so forth in his place behind Omar Suleiman
  5. And versions that play with the photographic conventions themselves. For example, one photo switched places between Omar Suleiman and MBOS. Another offered an infinite regression of OS, the MSBOS, OS, MBOS disappearing off the photo. Another featured a the MBOS replacing Hosni Mubarak in a scene of the Egyptian Parliament in session.

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Many of the photos were posted to a Facebook page which had more than 40,000 fans before it got taken down.

Other interesting MBOS gags included:

As the phenomenon of the man standing behind Omar Suleiman spread and jokes multiplied, the MBOS phenomenon itself became the subject of jokes. These include oral and printed jokes:

 Teacher: what would you like to be when you grow up?

Pupil: I want to be the man who stood behind Omar Suleiman.

and

What are the two most famous things in Egypt? Al-Tahrir Square and the man standing behind Omar Suleiman.

and also Tweets:

@aelgebal: USA has Batman and Superman, We have #TheGuyBehindOmarSuleiMAN

@KetyDC: Every revolution should have its own #TheGuyBehindOmarSuleiman

@o_salem: للإخوه اللي بيتريقوا على الراجل اللي ورا عمر سليمان، الراجل ده حارب في 3 حروب واستشهد مرتين، ياريت نقدره وكفايه :D (@o_salem: For all those making fun of the guy behind Omar Soliman, please pay him some respect, this guy participated in three past wars and died twice before.)

Note that many of these are what Shifman (2012) calls “metamemes,” specific texts that draw attention to the widely circulated nature of the meme itself.

Of particular interest to my study of parodic news in Egypt  are those jokes that mimic news forms:

@moeBelal:   عاجل: بعد اتساع شهرة الراجل للي ورا عمر سليمان، عمر سليمان يغير اسمه إلى الراجل للي قدام الراجل للي ورا عمر سليمان (Breaking news: After the fame of the guy behind Omar Suleiman, Omar Suleiman decided to change his name to become the guy in front of the guy behind Omar Suleiman)

and

@abdelazizMD: أنباء غير مؤكدة عن جلوس الراجل الواقف ورا عمر سليمان (Unconfirmed news report that the man standing behind Omar Suleiman has sat down)

Twitter user Malak El Ezzawy decided to mock Egyptian state television’s lies and state of denial that lasted throughout the revolution:

@ezzawy: Egyptian state TV: There was no one behind Omar Suleiman.

Other “news reports” include:

Israeli and U.S. intelligence services and al-Qaeda announced they aren’t responsible for the man standing behind Omar Suleiman.

Urgent News: An official source declared that the man who was standing behind Omar Suleiman is the owner of the microphone and is waiting Suleiman to finish his statement to collects his microphone and leave.

A journalist reports plans to change the nation’s motto into “ God, Homeland, and the man who is standing behind Omar Suleiman.”

One of the most fascinating elements of all this is that the rapid proliferation of MBOS jokes took place over a very short time period–just 6 days. Suleiman (and the MBOS) appeared on television on Feb. 11. The MBOS phenomenon went viral, but began to rapidly subside after Feb. 17.

Why Feb. 17? On that day, a man posted a note on the Man Behind Omar Suleiman Facebook page saying that he was the MBOS’s son, and that the MBOS was Egyptian army Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Sharif, commander of Group 64 of Egyptian Special Forces. He called on people to apologize for their remarks.

Many people expressed their regret for making fun of an Army officer, and for any pain they caused the family. Once the MBOS was identified, much of the humor disappeared, as it was rooted in part in the frowning face’s anonymity.

A few people posted to the Facebook not apologies but defenses. One of the most interesting referred to Egyptians’ reputation for being “light of blood,” and argued that it was an Egyptian custom to make fun of a frowning man.

At any rate, the Facebook page was taken down, and while a search on Google for “the man behind omar suleiman” will still yield ten thousand hits, this is a tremendous drop. Many Egyptians dutifully took down their videos and pictures once Col. Sharif had been identified. A chart monitoring the MBOS “meme” on the web site “Know Your Meme” showed a drop to almost no activity by March First.

In an interesting follow-up, a story appeared in the English edition of Ash-Sharq Al-Awsat about some young men who ran into, recognized, and joked with Col.Sharif about his unique status:

Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Sharif warmly greeted the Egyptian youths and shook their hands, and agreed to their request that he stand in front of them during this picture so that could be “the guys standing behind the guy behind Omar Suleiman.”

The Facebook poster also said that the Egyptian youths told Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Sharif that no insult was meant to him with regards to his cult internet status, and that this was all a bit of light-hearted fun.

A recent article by Limor Shifman in Media, Culture and Society distinguished between two kinds of Internet memes, those which are viral, which is to say widely copied and distributed without fundamental change, and those which are mimetic. The latter:

lures extensive creative user engagement in the form of parody, pastiche, mash-ups or other derivative work. Such derivatives employ two main mechanisms in relating to the ‘original’ memetic video: imitation (parroting elements from a video) and re-mix (technologically-afforded re-editing of the video).

Clearly, MBOS is mimetic rather than viral. Further, Shifman identified six common features of mimetic items on the Internet:

  1. a focus on ordinary people
  2. flawed masculinity (representations of men who “fail to meet current masculine expectations either in appearance or behavior.”)
  3. humor
  4. simplicity
  5. repetitiveness, and
  6. whimsical content (a strong element of playfulness).

The MBOS phenomenon certainly includes features 4-6.  Shifman argues that each of these attributes marks the video as incomplete or flawed, and as such invites others to further the creative dialogue by creating new texts that contribute to the spreading digital culture.

In other words, as long as MBOS was unidentified, the simple, funny, repetetive and playful nature of the meme invites continual new variations and versions. As versions multiplied, the funniness of the continued existence and extensions of the meme led people to create metamemes, humorously reflecting on the meme phenomenon itself (some of which take the form of news parody).

Once MBOS was identified, much of the playfulness and humor of the meme, rooted in the original joke “Who is the guy standing behind Omar Suleiman?” vanishes, making continued mimetic play less inviting. Combined with the tendency of Egyptians to act respectfully to fathers, and to military officers, it explains why meme activity dropped immediately.

References

Amr, Tarek. 2011. Egypt: The Guy Behind Omar Suleiman. Global Voices Online. Feb. 15.

Old Sbice. 2011. The Guy Behind Omar Soliman. Know Your Meme.  [Accessed March 20 2012]

PanOrient News. 2011. The Man who was Standing Behind Omar Suleiman. PanOrient News Friday, Feb. 18.

Rabeea, Sara. 2011. Egyptian youth stand behind the man behind Omar SuleimanAsharq Alawsat English Edition. 24 Feb.

Shifman, Limor. 2012. An anatomy of a YouTube meme. New Media  and Society 14(2): 187-203

Television story about MBOS on El-Mehwar TV:

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