x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Egypt’s political cartoonists say they won’t let Sisi off the hook

Despite threats of violence to artists and newspapers, political cartooning has a long history in Egypt – and the new president won’t be exempt, the say.

Mohamed Anwar’s cartoon of Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Courtesy Mohamed Anwar / Al-Masry Al-Youm
Mohamed Anwar’s cartoon of Egypt’s new president Abdel Fattah El Sisi. Courtesy Mohamed Anwar / Al-Masry Al-Youm

A black-suited, chubby cheeked Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Egypt’s new president, is walking past an ordinary man who is reading a newspaper with the headline: “The start of the final high school examinations” – the examinations that Egyptian students have to pass to get into university. The man looks up at El-Sisi and says: “And your exams have begun too … have you revised?”

It’s one of the first cartoons featuring Egypt’s new president to have been published in an Egyptian newspaper. And the cartoonist who drew it, 26-year-old Mohamed Anwar, believes depicting Egypt’s president in this way is an important statement.

“Once he’s in his seat, then he must be questioned. All accusations that you’re against the country and against stability by doing so, break down,” he told me in a recent interview near his office at Al-Masry Al-Youm, Egypt’s most widely circulated private daily newspaper. His cartoon of El Sisi appeared in the ­paper on June 9, on page three, as one of his cartoons does every day.

Egypt’s former defence minister, El Sisi led the army’s ousting of the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, after a mass wave of protests calling on him to resign. El Sisi has since been hailed a hero and the country’s saviour, and his image has appeared on everything from chocolates and T-shirts to underwear and billboards across the country.

During the election campaign, criticism in the mainstream press was a rather predictable affair. “You can draw Sisi positively and Islamists negatively. That’s been the red line recently,” says Jonathan Guyer, a senior editor of the quarterly journal Cairo Review of Global Affairs and a blogger on Arabic cartoons and caricature at the blog Oum Cartoon.

Egypt is known to have one of the most vibrant cartooning cultures in the region, and Al-Masry Al-Youm is at the forefront, with around five published daily. Each of its five cartoonists has their own style and focus: from female cartoonist Doaa El-Adl’s daughter and father characters who comment upon the day’s news, to veteran cartoonist Amr Selim’s jibes at Morsi and his supporters.

“The art is so good here, even though there are no caricature schools. The styles are so varied from simple line drawings to very complex grotesque caricature,” says Guyer. “If you look at Saudi, Qatari or Moroccan cartoons they have a two-dimensional, boring set up.”

“Cartoonists have historically played a role in criticising the [Hosni Mubarak] regime and pointing out its faults,” says Ahmed Ezzat, the director of the legal unit at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, a Cairo-based non-governmental organisation that monitors media censorship, among other things.

“At a time when free speech is being stifled, either through the government’s attempts to monitor social media websites or by threats to satirical TV programmes, and the various legal cases that get raised against journalists and cartoonists, these caricaturists remain important for providing a space to express opinions and discuss social and political issues in a simple way,” he says.

Social media websites have been one of the outlets people in Egypt use, including its cartoonists, to express how they feel when other channels are closed down to them. Andeel, a 27-year-old cartoonist who quit Al-Masry Al-Youm because he said his work was being censored, has nearly 40,000 followers on Facebook.

“[Al-Masry Al-Youm] published my cartoons critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and none critical of the army,” Andeel says. “I kept wondering, if you’re so sure what you’re doing is right, why would you want to censor a cartoon?”

Andeel went on to become a writer on Bassem Youssef’s satirical television news show El Bernameg, which had been considered a barometer of free speech in post-2011 revolutionary Egypt. At its height, an estimated 8 million viewers inside Egypt and many millions abroad watched the show. Youssef, a former surgeon turned comedian, announced earlier this month that the programme would close because he no longer felt safe to satirise Egyptian politics. “I’m tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family,” he told journalists. “The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire programme.”

Anwar believes that it is his duty as a journalist to draw the approximately 200,000 readers of Al-Masry Al-Youm, who may not share his political views, into political debate. The head of the cartoon department, Amr Selim, is one of them. Selim has been an advocate of Sisi’s “war on terror” campaign but both men agree on the importance of expressing a variety of opinion within the newspaper’s pages.

From casting himself as an opposition figure under Mubarak, under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that took over after Mubarak’s downfall, and under Morsi’s rule, Selim is now a Sisi supporter.

“There might be lots of things annoying me in the country,” he says, “but I have started to understand that if I say something, then it might benefit one side in particular. So I could say I’m annoyed by the security operations, but I understand now why they are taking place.”

Selim recalls with bitterness his experience of working under Morsi’s one-year rule. After drawing cartoons critical of the Brotherhood and Morsi, Islamists called him an infidel and threatened to attack the newspaper and Selim.

“It was terrifying,” he says, and he still believes his life would be under threat if he went near a pro-Morsi or Brotherhood march. It’s a threat he says he never felt under Mubarak or SCAF, and he hopes a Sisi presidency will restore security and stability to the country.

His young protégé Anwar had a similar experience with the Brotherhood, even before Morsi came to power. He recalls drawing a cartoon about SCAF’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood in December 2011, so that protests would end and parliamentary elections would begin. Anwar drew a cartoon implying that this agreement had been made at the expense of people’s blood. For this, the newspaper started receiving threats and Anwar was accused of blasphemy – so the paper stopped publishing cartoons of men with beards, a reference to Islamists, he said.

At the time, Anwar was also working for the government-owned magazine Rose Al-Yusuf. After Morsi became president he appointed editors who were members of the Brotherhood or sympathetic to them to head state-owned papers. “The irony is that despite being the first democratic elections we took part in, the first phone call I got from the editor-in-chief was telling me not to say anything about Morsi in my cartoons,” recalls Anwar. Eventually, they stopped publishing his cartoons and he joined Al-Masry Al-Youm full-time.

Back in 2005, Selim was the first to caricature Mubarak when he was head of cartooning at the opposition newspaper Al-Dostour. This broke new ground, as cartoonists in the mainstream press traditionally portrayed Mubarak in a positive light. That year proved a watershed marked by some significant political events; among them was a constitutional referendum to establish direct elections for the presidency. Fearful that the presidency would be handed to Mubarak’s son Gamal, an opposition movement sprang up that paved the way for the 2011 uprising. It was in this climate of change that Selim was able to draw and publish his cartoons criticising Mubarak. 

The 1950s and 1960s are described as the Golden Age for cartooning with the prominence of political cartoonists such as Salah Jahin, Ahmed Hegazy and Bahgat Osman. But, those cartoonists aren’t known for caricaturing Nasser, for instance. 

Guyer sees parallels between an earlier generation of cartoonists and today’s older figures like Selim who are supportive of Sisi. “Nasser shielded the military from critiques and most artists of this period went along with Nasser’s project,” he says. “It’s not that people are scared; many support Sisi’s project in the same way cartoonists of an earlier generation supported Nasser.”

Whether that support can hold, one suspects, is the next subject for pen and ink.

Nadine Marroushi is a Cairo-based freelance journalist who also writes for Mada Masr and the London Review of Books blog.