The other week the office of one of Egypt’s leading political cartoonists, Mohamed Anwar, got a phone call from a patriotic reader. She was in tears – devastated that his cartoon that day had indirectly teased President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. “Why are you doing this to Sisi?”, she asked Anwar’s colleagues. “Why are you always fighting him?”
Anwar’s “burden” (from the newspaper al-Masry al-Youm) Dad: “Why do you want to go the bathroom right now? It’s a critical moment for the country, and we should all share the burden.” [The joke is that Sisi is always banging on about sharing the burden, so it’s funny that a dad would use this rhetoric to tell his son to hold on.]
Ironically, the cartoon in question did not even depict the strongman himself – Anwar rarely goes that far. Instead it mocked Sisi’s high-handed habit of telling the country’s long-suffering citizens to “share the burden” of Egypt’s economic crisis. A young boy needs the toilet and his father asks him: “Why do you want to go the bathroom right now? It’s a critical moment for the country and we should all share the burden.” For Anwar, the backlash was a good example of the pressures mainstream Egyptian cartoonists regularly face from not just the authorities but also their nationalistic readers. Despite stopping well short of the implicit red line of ad hominem criticism, Anwar had gone too far. “This is the hardest era,” concludes Anwar, “in which to cartoon in a mainstream newspaper in Egypt.”
Anwar is part of a generation of young political cartoonists who emerged in the newly established private media during the last years of former dictator Hosni Mubarak. Their satire helped foster an environment in which Mubarak could be ousted. But it was only under Mubarak’s elected but autocratic successor, Mohamed Morsi, that their full fury was unleashed – paradoxically lampooning Morsi’s creeping authoritarianism while avoiding falling victim to it.
“There were very few cartoons of Mubarak in the press, even during the last years as opposition against him swelled,” says Jonathan Guyer, senior editor of the Cairo Review and a scholar of Egyptian cartoons. “But under Morsi newspaper front pages had cartoons of him – really derogatory, really emphasising his misguided approach.” That brief freedom ended, ironically, when Morsi was ousted – following days of protests in July 2013 – by Sisi, who turned out to be far more oppressive. Under the new broom’s with-us-or-against logic, most opposition – including from cartoonists – is now considered borderline treasonous. Some cartoonists are only too happy to fall into line, such was their fear of Morsi’s Islamism. But those who oppose both Morsi and Sisi either recognise the need to censor themselves – or have it done for them by their regime-friendly editors. The regime itself barely needs to lift a finger.
As a result, Sisi’s appearance in newspaper cartoons is as rare as it was for Mubarak. “Not that many people portray Sisi at all,” says Andeel, the most rebellious of Egypt’s young cartoonists. “Some of them can’t – they’re working in places that won’t let them. And some of them are convinced this is not the right time and the current situation dictates a different kind of opposition.” Andeel himself disagrees. “I see the cartoons they’re publishing,” he says, “and with all due respect to them I’m very disappointed.” His own work goes for the jugular: his most recent piece is an A3-size poster that pokes fun at Sisi’s paternalist vision. “What should we do about the rubbish, the traffic, the electricity, the hospitals?” asks one of Sisi’s lackeys in the cartoon. “What should we do about ignorance?” The cartoon Sisi pauses, then says: “Increase ignorance.”
Andeel’s “Increase ignorance” cartoon (from Tok-Tok magazine).
Other regime critics have tempered their work for safety reasons: TV satirist Bassem Youssef – described in the west as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” – ended his show because of threats to his family. But Andeel says he doesn’t fear the consequences of taking on the big man.
“I know westerners may have a sensational idea of what it’s like to be part of the opposition in an oppressive country, but in reality it’s just a job like any other,” says Andeel, who started drawing for mainstream newspapers a decade ago as a teenager. “Since I started making cartoons when I was 17, I knew that a big part of my job was about dealing with censorship. You can’t be against those who have the power and not expect them to do everything they can to stop you from telling people that they suck.” But Andeel no longer does so in the mainstream media. He quit his job at al-Masry al-Youm, Egypt’s most prestigious private newspaper, last autumn. Now he makes no-holds-barred work for a progressive online newspaper, Mada Masr, and in a subversive comic called Tok-Tok, where his recent poster was published.
Though the Egyptian internet has a thriving subculture of dissent, the rebellious Tok-Tok is one of the few print products left in Egypt that will deal with political and social taboos. With its non-hierarchical editorial team, its readiness to publish both risque and everyday stories, it has become a symbol for what remains of Egypt’s revolutionary spirit. “There’s just nothing like it,” says Guyer, who sees Tok-Tok as Egypt’s version of Mad magazine. “It’s really looking to the future, incubating artists, thinking about new forms – and it’s collaborative, which is quite rare in a very hierarchical society.”Tok-Tok has a print run of only 2,000, while Mada Masr has yet to break into the mainstream. But Andeel would rather cater for this small readership – as well as his Facebook followers – than water down his work for the many more conservative readers at al-Masry al-Youm. By contrast, Anwar – Andeel’s friend and former colleague – accepts that his cartoons are not as direct as they could be. But he reckons the compromise is worth it, so he can reach people like the woman who called him crying. “I don’t only want to be talking to people who agree with me,” he says. “I can put my cartoon online, [for the] 50,000 followers who have the same background and beliefs as me. But at al-Masry al-Youm I’m talking to 600,000 people who have completely different views to me – and that’s the aim of cartooning. It’s about making ordinary people used to certain kinds of cartoons and criticism. It’s a cumulative process.”