Under Morsi, red lines gone gray

Jonathan Guyer , Monday 30 Sep 2013

The practice of political cartooning could serve as a barometer, measuring permissible speech of a given moment in Egypt

The president and the chairman of the Armed Forces watch a video of kidnapped soldiers in Sinai. Dialogue reads: Morsi: “Look—they mentioned you.” Al-Sisi: “Yeah, they also mentioned you.” (Photo: Andeel, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 20 May 2013)

The job of political cartoonists is to push the envelope. But what happens when the size and shape of the envelope changes? That, in effect, is what has been happening ever since Hosni Mubarak was removed from power by the combination of a mass uprising and a military coup. Since then, the contours of permissible speech have been shifting constantly. This has led as much to confusion as it has to creativity.

Cartooning has long been one of the pillars of the public discourse in Egypt. Especially during authoritarian times, cartooning has often been where political critique is loudest, or most daring.[1] But the inherently ironic logic of cartooning means that the volume and barb of this critique is never straightforward. In fact, its very meaning derives from the fact that it tacks closely – and ambiguously – to red lines. The political value of cartooning, it might be said, depends on the existence of these red lines. This leads to a paradox: rather than impeding creative cartooning, censorship and the suppression of free speech sometimes enable it.

In this sense, political cartoons serve as useful survey instruments for mapping the permissible speech of a given moment in Egypt. The borders of speech are in part drawn by laws, in part by taboos that are more implicit. A cartoonist who goes too far can trigger legal action by state or private actors. This, of course, exerts some pressure on cartoonists, but so too do more informal or internalised forms of censorship. Furthermore, the media platform matters quite a bit: print media has greater leeway than film and television. Despite the laws on the books, it is most accurate to that that the limits are fluid, defined only insofar as cartoonists' challenge and trespass restrictions around them. This is a routine rather than exceptional part of the work that Egyptian cartoonists do.

"Insulting the President" and "Blasphemy"

To trace how artists work, we could recall an example from the Mubarak era. A long-standing prohibition on drawing the president’s face (Article 178 of the Penal Code) was consistently followed by newsmen. But Amro Selim began to cross this line in 2005 by drawing the president from behind: "Bit-by-bit we turned him around, until making a cartoon of him became the norm." Al-Dostour's chief editor, Ibrahim Eissa, offered Selim a platform to draw freely, and helped him break the rules. "Back then… everybody asked why we were not detained," said Selim. "It was because we were daring, hitting the red line and going up against it."[2] Thus Selim and Eissa managed to give the president a funny face, in spite of occasional legal trouble. Together they mentored a new generation of cartoonists and provoked the caricature of future presidents.

The most significant change in Egyptian caricature since 2011 is the implicit permissibility of satirising the president. Nevertheless, during President Mohamed Morsi's year in office, the same penal code article maintained that "whoever insults the president… shall be imprisoned." Yet, according to Judge Yussef Auf, it does not clearly stipulate what insulting the president means or what the precise penalty should be.[3] Additionally, nearly seventy other articles limit freedom of expression. These range from prohibitions against "insults" to the parliament, army, courts, and other public authorities, to injunctions against the reporting of false news. Nonetheless, mocking these institutions became a core part of cartooning even in government-run newspapers, in spite of – or because of – these regulations.

“Youth: OK, do you know the answer to this riddle? An elected president, responsible for killing peaceful protesters… He and his gang monopolized the government, and his party corrupted political life. The first letter of his name is "M"! President Morsi: M..m…Mubarak?!” Newspaper headline: "Martyrs in Suez and Alexandria on the Revolution's Anniversary." Source: Amro Selim, Al-Shorouk, 27 January 2013.

As the enforcement of the laws became increasingly arbitrary, cartoonists navigated tricky waters. In Morsi's first six months, at least twenty-four lawsuits were filed against media actors for "insulting the president," breaking a record set in 1909.[4] Most of these were brought forward by individuals rather than state officials.

There is no exact science to determine the permissibility of a given cartoon. For instance, the popular right wing and anti-Morsi daily Al-Watan came under legal and extra-legal attacks. The paper was subject to myriad suits charging insult to the president, including one related to a set of Morsi caricatures. There was also a concerted campaign of intimidation as thugs burned their offices and assaulted editors. At the same time, independent dailies like Al-Shorouk and Al-Tahrir published anti-Morsi cartoons on their front pages.

Morsi supporters also targeted cartoonists by filing blasphemy cases. Article 98 (Section F) of the Penal Code defines the violation as "any use of religion to promote or advocate extremist ideologies… with a view toward stirring up sedition, disparaging or showing contempt" toward one of the Abrahamic faiths.[5] Yet, like Article 178, it is vaguely defined.

By the time Morsi took office, the number and intensity of blasphemy charges had escalated.[6] Morsi's supporters also blurred the red lines surrounding insults to the presidency and Islam. For many in the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and rank-and-file, it was simply not acceptable for Morsi to subjected to ridicule, first because he was the leading member of the organisation, second, because he was head of state. "The president is a symbol of religion and state," said Muhamed Muhamed Shaker, a member of the Lawyers Syndicate's Human Rights Committee and one of the plaintiffs who sued comedian Bassem Youssef for insulting the president.[7] Cartoonists responded by skewering Morsi and his colleagues for politicising religion. Al-Masry Al-Youm cartoonist Doaa Eladl drew a biblical prophet in December 2012, a jab at Morsi's religious overtones in hammering through a constitutional referendum. A Salafi-affiliated NGO brought a lawsuit against her. The case has since been dropped, according to Eladl and the plaintiff (the latter conceded that its basis wasn't particularly robust).[8]

Amro Selim, who mentored Eladl at Al-Dostour nearly a decade earlier, received death threats for his attacks on Morsi. Selim summed up the shift as follows:

    Before the revolution, there were no religious prohibitions. You could rarely be sued for insulting religion. But now, this is the most frequent accusation. This is the difference. Under Mubarak, I was sued for insulting the president in the pages of Al-Masry Al-Youm. I was subjected to interrogation, but the case did not go forward. Now, I am accused of insulting religion. Before the revolution I was attacked for being a dissident. After the revolution, for being an infidel.[9]

Religion was also a taboo during Mubarak's time, but during Morsi's year the battle grew more contentious. The Lawyers Syndicate essentially issued gag orders, supported by the Prosecutor General and other pro-Morsi forces. Morsi's supporters used lawsuits to intimidate. Importantly, there was no chilling effect on the output on cartoonists. On the contrary, these attacks triggered a small boom.



Throughout Morsi's year, artists performed new acrobatic feats along the red lines. Operating within (and around) explicit and implicit regulations, each artist took his or her own approach toward challenging the rules of the game. This involved learning the new red lines and how to work with them, publishing controversial cartoons even if they crossed these lines, and finally, developing other media platforms for cartooning.  

For instance, controversial images could often be published within the system. In some ways, subtlety was no longer even necessary for cartooning in independent newspapers. Consider these cartoons from Al-Masry Al-Youm: Morsi as a general's lap dog (Doaa Eladl, 26 June 2012); Morsi splattered with Blood (Anwar, 27 January 2013) Morsi as a sheep (Makhlouf, February to June, 2013). In Al-Siyasi, Ahmad Nady drew Morsi on the toilet. Each of these cartoons crossed over into legal contentious realms. But the fact they circulated suggested a revolution was taking place in the media.

Other cartoons were censored. One key example took place in the context of the bloody clashes in which more than thirty civilians were killed in the Suez zone late January 2013. In the wake of this, Morsi declared a state of emergency. Four days later, a group of leading politicians, convened by Al-Azhar, signed a ten-point memorandum renouncing the violence. The gesture was failure, since it did not condemn police or military abuses, nor demand that they be held accountable. In the days that followed, riot police stripped a civilian, Hamada Saber, and dragged him through a street near the presidential palace. Egyptian state TV broadcast it live: a horrific crime occurring in prime time.

"Document Renouncing Violence," reads the headline of the censored edition. Source: Ahmad Nady, Al-Siyasiyy, 6 February 2013.

In response, the cartoonist Ahmad Nady drew a cover for Al-Siyasi magazine with these same Egyptian leaders naked. Among the lot were former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, as well as Mohamed Elbaradei, Ayman Nour, and the Muslim Brotherhood's Saad Al-Katatni. The youth of the revolution were implicated in the illustration, too, beside the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Pope. Nady drew them toasting martini glasses filled with blood. Behind them stands President Morsi, who is clothed, and a Central Security goon. Morsi looks down at the political elites and says, "Take your time. We removed your political cover from the people, so do as you like." The last clause literally translates as, "their blood is halal," the Arabic word for "pure." Morsi had given the leaders permission to imbibe the people’s carnage – on the cover of a weekly magazine named Political.  "So I drew this, and [the editor] choked," Nady explained. But his arrangement with the publication included total editorial freedom. Said Nady, "I don't have red lines."[10] After the print ran, the publisher pulled the issue and apologised. "They even took the issues that we had in our bags and counted the issues that were printed to make sure nothing was outside," said managing editor Farah Yousry.[11]

Nady's violation was both ambiguous and self-evident. He had trespassed red lines beyond insulting the president and religious figures. However, it was the editorial leadership of the magazine, and not the state, who made the decision to censor his work. Abdel Monem Said Aly, chairman of the Al-Masry Al-Youm Corporation, only vaguely recalled the "offensive" cover. He said that if the issue were distributed people would burn it, and Al-Masry Al-Youm Corporation's reputation would be scarred.[12] According to the artist and the magazine's managing editor, it was the Coptic Church who shouted loudest for censoring for the cover. There is an "aura around the church, and they are a minority," said Yousry, the editor, and readers might perceive the cover as hate speech or profanity. TV producers started calling Nady, assuming that the Muslim Brotherhood had applied pressure to pull the cover. Nady told them that it had been the Church that applied the pressure. No one called him back.

There was nothing subtle about Nady's work. His project is an overt challenge to authority and an interpolation of red lines. "I see the Church like the Salafis. They are the same for me… I don't accept any of them," said Nady. "So I am the first one in Egypt who draws against the Church and the Pope [in cartoons]. You can see it on Facebook."

Nady posted it on Facebook, where his page has over fourteen thousand "likes," far beyond the circulation of Al-Siyasi. Similarly, Hany Shams, the caricature head of Al-Akhbar, said that editors "prevented" or asked him to alter about dozen cartoons in 2011-2012. Some insulted Morsi and his policies, others the military. He made them all available to the public on Facebook. While bloggers have been put on trial for insulting religion online, cartoonists who post on social media have not faced legal action.

Beyond new digital platforms for publishing work, there are also other venues. For instance, the graphic novel Metro, which was banned in early 2008, was illegally reprinted in Cairo in 2012. Likewise, following the blasphemy case against Eladl, her work was showcased in an outdoor art festival, Al-Fan Al-Midan, in Cairo's Abdeen Square. The work was open to the public. Beside the exhibition, her colleagues Anwar and Makhlouf improvised a political mural on a nine-foot white board: police and thugs battling young activists, drawn with sharpies. Eighty-some bystanders laughed and applauded. On the loudspeaker, the master of ceremonies delivered a passionate speech about young martyrs killed by the authorities under Morsi –a block from a presidential palace. Nothing was censored.

"Document Renouncing Violence," reads the headline of the censored edition. Source: Ahmad Nady, Al-Siyasiyy, 6 February 2013.

"Why Do You Criticise the Military Council?"

Since the military overthrow of Morsi in July 2013, familiar restrictions have surfaced. In comparison to Morsi, who preferred "clumsy litigation" and "tacitly approving" anti-media campaigns as his primary means of censoring, journalist Sarah Carr has noted the reemergence of more repressive tactics to silence reporters. The current junta is coercing journalists to follow the official script. The crime of lampooning the president endures, even as the government has removed jail terms for "insulting the president." Meanwhile, Egyptians await a new constitution, which may expand or erase these restrictions on speech. The limits are as gray as ever.

Cartoonists have experience working in a repressive environment. Following the 2011 uprising, throughout the eighteen months the military ruled Egypt, authorities quietly threatened cartoonists. For instance, an officer called Abdallah when he drew a cartoon about the military in Al-Masry Al-Youm."Why do you criticise the Military Council? We are good, and we love the country," Abdallah remembered the official saying. "[The officer] said it gently though."[13] Furthermore, in November 2011, editor Magdy El-Gallad told the same paper's caricature department to cut a popular protest chant, 'Down with Military Rule,' from copy. "It's direct orders, and don't talk about this," was how Andeel recalls the instruction.[14] So the cartoonist and his colleagues launched a Tumblr site called, "Thrr," or revolt. Comics with that chant, along with portraits of the Armed Forces' chairman unpublished elsewhere, found a home online. For the print edition of Al-Masry Al-Youm, the cartoonists each drew cartoons featuring a boot, an act of defiance that fell within acceptable speech.

The president and the chairman of the Armed Forces watch a video of kidnapped soldiers in Sinai. Dialogue reads: Morsi: “Look—they mentioned you.” Al-Sisi: “Yeah, they also mentioned you.” Source: Andeel, Al-Masry Al-Youm, 20 May 2013.

By 2013, it seemed that all of the red lines have been broken. Presidents have been insulted, leaders drawn naked, and religion laughed at. But just as Morsi's cohort attempted to censor satire of religion, so too can we expect the new government to attempt to create new boundaries. Working around red lines, "trains the cartoonist to make up his mind in different ways so the cartoon becomes smarter," said Abdallah. "And it is also more interesting for the readers."[15]

For cartoonists, the red lines have less to do with laws and more to do with the considerations that presuppose drawing, the artist's deliberations and reservations while at the drawing board. What if Selim had quivered before the penal code and never caricatured Mubarak? Ultimately, the cartoonists themselves determine what is illustratable, and by extension the margins of acceptable speech. Self-censorship "is the most dangerous thing," said Selim. "I always tell cartoonists not to censor themselves. If they attach brakes to themselves, they will not draw at all."[16]


[1] For instance, in 1989 Bahgat Osman published, Dictatorship for Beginners: Bahgatos, President of Greater Bahgatia, though it was not widely available. The book unabashedly mocks the military. Likewise, caricaturist Moustafa Hussein and satirist Ahmad Rajab have lampooned the prime minister in Al-Akhbar since 1974, even as other publications shied away from ridicule of officials.

[2] Interview with Amro Selim, Al-Shorouk office, Cairo, 3 April 2013. Maha El-Kady translated the recording from Arabic to English.

Eissa was the only journalist to be indicted under Mubarak, on separate case. In June 2005, he and two of his colleagues were convicted for "insulting the president" and "spreading false or tendentious rumors," related to a report they published about a court case against the president. They were released on bail and ultimately pardoned. See Samia Mehrez Egypt's Culture Wars (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press 2010): pg. 286.

[3] Interview with Yusuf Auf by telephone, 30 May 2013.

[4] Interview with Walid Taher, Cairo, 28 May 2013. Ahmed Shawkat translated the recording from Arabic to English.

[5] For details on specific cases, see: Policing Belief: The Impact of Blasphemy Laws on Human Rights. Freedom House. (2010).

[6] See, for instance: Ben Hubbard and Mayy El Sheikh, "Islamists Press Blasphemy Cases in a New Egypt. New York Times," 18 June 2013; Kristen Chick, "In Brotherhood's Egypt, blasphemy charges against Christians surge ahead," Christian Science Monitor, 22 May 2013; "Factbox: What counts as blasphemy in Egyptian law?" Egypt Independent, 11 June 11 2013. None of the aforementioned reports mention litigation against cartoonists.

[7] Interview with Muhamed Muhamed Shaker, Lawyers Syndicate, Cairo, (May 27, 2013).

[8]Interview with Doaa Eladl, Al-Masry Al-Youm office, Cairo, 18 May 2013; Interview with Khaled El-Masry, Lawyers Syndicate, Cairo, 27 May 2013.

[9] Selim, 2013.

[10] Interview with Ahmad Nady, Cairo, 8 May 2013.

[11] Interview with Farah Yousry by telephone, 30 May 30 2013.

[12] Interview with Abdel Monem Said Aly, Giza, 25 June 2013.

[13] Interview with Abdallah, Al-Masry Al-Youm office, 17 May 2013.

[14] Interview with Andeel, Cairo, 12 June 2013.

[15] Abdallah, 2013.

[16] Selim, 2013.


This article was originally published in Jadaliyya.

Short link: