How the war of words was won in Cairo

Ben Zimmer writes:

How do you tell a dictator to get lost?

The answer, in Egypt, was with poetry, tech lingo, hieroglyphics and more.

For weeks, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, demonstrators were telling President Hosni Mubarak to leave, playfully using a variety of dialects and languages to get the idea across.

And on Friday, Mr. Mubarak finally got the message and resigned.

In countries under authoritarian rule, “speaking truth to power” typically takes the form of highly colorful and creative modes of expression. Playing with language is often one of the few ways to challenge an oppressive political system, and the pointed humor behind the linguistic ingenuity can create strong bonds of solidarity.

Indeed, there are strong parallels in the fall of Ceausescu in Romania or Suharto in Indonesia. Indonesian activists in the 1990s, for instance, turned their president’s name into a snarky acronym: “sudah harus tobat” (“should have repented by now”).

On their own protest signs, Egyptian wordsmiths transliterated “irhal,” the standard Arabic imperative for “depart,” into Egyptian hieroglyphics so that “the pharaoh” would understand. And a popular rhyming chant on Tahrir Square played with high and low forms of Arabic, explaining to Mr. Mubarak that “irhal” means “imshi,” a colloquial Egyptian word that might be best rendered in English as “beat it.”

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