CAIRO, Egypt—A portly Egyptian taxi driver's trip from obscurity to cult hero began with a 33-second act of subversion uncommon in this police state: He poked fun at the president.
The anonymous cabbie's spot-on impersonation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak—right down to the curled lips, squinted eyes and studied earnestness—was captured in an undated video clip that's become an underground classic in Cairo. While nobody knows the identity of the prankster, his face is growing famous, thanks to the thousands of text messages and e-mails Egyptians are sending this month to build the widest possible audience for one man's Internet-age act of rebellion.
"I exploded laughing," said Mohammed Fangary, an architect in Cairo. "How could such a person exist? He's perfect!"
A couple of Cairenes claimed to have seen the video up to two years ago, which would explain the impersonator's references to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who's been in a coma since January. But most Egyptians interviewed said the clip had gained widespread popularity only in the past month. Last week it went international on YouTube, the video-sharing Web site.
The video is filmed in a car and zeroes in on the man at the wheel, assumed by virtually all viewers to be a taxi driver (or maybe a driver for the DHL shipping service). Against the familiar Cairo background noise of competing car horns, the man launches into a send-up of Mubarak, the 78-year-old president whose authoritarian grasp on Egypt has stretched for more than two decades.
The clip has no introduction or fancy production gimmicks. To Egyptians, the target of the joke is instantly recognizable.
Unlike the United States, where programs such as "Saturday Night Live" and "The Daily Show" regularly make room for presidential impersonators, Egyptian law threatens jail time for anyone found guilty of insulting the president. Critics say the law is too broad and has been used arbitrarily as a means to silence Mubarak's domestic opposition or to shut down newspapers.
Mubarak's aides couldn't be reached for comment about the video. Officials at the government press center said they hadn't seen it.
The sketch shows the impersonator boasting and babbling about his talks with Israeli officials. He invokes the same phrases—"many negotiations," "severe consequences," "international condemnation"—that Egyptians are accustomed to hearing in presidential speeches. But the delivery is everything. The cabbie scrunches up his face, jerks forward for emphasis and affects a self-righteous air.
"I talked to Sharon and warned him more than once," he says. "Hitting the Palestinians with bombs and guns, while they defend themselves with rocks, this is dangerous, and the whole international community will be very angry."
Many in Cairo say it's the message that takes it from gag to satire.
Because of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel—one of only three involving Arab nations—Mubarak is considered a traitor by many Arabs loyal to the Palestinian cause. His public tough line on Israel inspires groans and eye rolling from Egyptians, who've watched their president side with the United States and Israel over Arab interests for years.
"It makes you laugh, it makes you cry," an unidentified Egyptian computer user wrote in Arabic on a Web site that played the clip.
"Even a taxi driver makes fun of Mubarak's politics and how he follows Israel on everything! He should've ended the clip with, `I warned Sharon, I told him, and he completely ignored me,'" said Youssef Sleit, 26, a production manager at a mattress factory. "It shows how Mubarak totally embarrasses us."
Others defended the president. Sally Azmy, a 26-year-old real estate agent, said she laughed at the impersonator's facial expressions, but wouldn't want to see the performance repeated.
"He's still our president, even if he makes mistakes," Azmy said. "In the U.S., President Bush is disrespected and we receive e-mails with Bush's head attached to a dog's body or to a woman's body. I wouldn't want to see my president portrayed like that. Egypt still has an image to uphold."
The video can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v(EQUAL)StpLny2dxl4
(El Naggar is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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