What goes on in the minds of political cartoonists

Heba El-Sherif , Wednesday 25 Feb 2015

Egyptian cartoonists speak to Ahram Online about truth, utopia and self-censorship

Mohamed El Hagrasy
Cartoon by Mohamed El Hagrasy, first published in Masr Al Arabia (Photo: Courtesy of El Hagrasy)

A large, flat TV screen hangs on one side of the wall. It’s set on mute. A string of desks are stretched out across the room. Writers covering a range of beats take to their seats, their eyes glued to their computer screens, their fingers clicking and clacking, producing tens of news stories a day.

Somewhere inside the newsroom walls, among these journalists, political cartoonists take to their pens.  

“Political cartoonists are not journalists,” says Doaa El-Adl, one of Egypt’s leading female political cartoonists.

She explains that political cartooning is an art form that stems from journalism. The difference, however, is that “a journalist is obliged to report about every piece of news, but we get to choose the topic we shed light on.”

Mohamed Tawfik, whose cartoons appear regularly in the online news website Masr Al-Arabia, agrees.

“I don’t like to confine my work to a profession, which comes with its set of limitations… I like to draw freely, naturally, conveying my feelings as they arise so that I am able to relay my thoughts to the readers truthfully,” Tawfik, who is also one of the founders of the comic magazine Tok Tok, told Ahram Online.

In a way, political cartoonists are pressed to follow the news, to remain updated with events as they unfold, but their inspiration can also stem from daily interactions.

“[My] source of inspiration could be a situation I witnessed or observed, or something I heard,” says Mohamed El-Hagrasy, whose cartoons appear in a number of online platforms, as well as in print.  

He believes cartoons should criticise any faults in society, not just in politics.

“Our role is to unveil the truth and criticise wrong actions that are viewed by some as acceptable,” he added.

So how do political cartoonists strike a balance between creativity and political or social comment?

“I don’t strive to be referred to as an artist per se,” explains Tawfik. “I enjoy expressing my opinion on different matters of life… but at the same time, I measure the extent to which I offer valuable work by people’s engagement with what I produce, be they supporters or opponents.”

Ultimately, a good cartoon is a mix between sharp wit and skillfully etched illustrations.

But in the current political context, Tawfik finds himself performing a kind of self-censorship.

“You start thinking of the repercussions of what you draw,” the 30-some year-old told Ahram Online, pointing to the period between 25 January 2011 and the end of 2012 as the “richest period” in terms of non-leashed creativity.  

“What cartoonists do is try to shed light on a certain problem to draw people’s attention to it, to get them to realise its danger without necessarily providing solutions,” says Tawfik.

Because the current political climate is marred by polarisation, he says, accusing someone from an opposing political camp is easy and rampant, and, in the case of political cartoonists, often life-threatening.

In December 2012, a case was filed against El-Adl when she drew a cartoon commenting on the constitutional referendum. She was accused of defaming Islam for depicting a man and a woman next to an apple tree, alluding to Adam and Eve.   

“Exercising self-censorship is not a healthy habit,” says El-Adl, admitting that at this moment in time, she thinks for long bouts before she draws.

El-Adl goes on to suggest that political cartoonists, including herself, were naive during the early days of the 25 January uprising.

“We used to draw with the hope of changing the regime. This was very dangerous... We were dreaming of a utopia.”

Now, she continues, caution must be exercised.

“We are in the midst of a moral war… it’s a matter of land, a matter of borders, and we’ve seen what that can do to a country, like in Yemen or Syria or Libya,” she added in reference to the current state-sponsored clamp down on Islamist insurgents in North Sinai.

“Of course, I disagree with putting innocent lives behind bars… Any criticism at the moment is meant to better the government’s performance.”

As political developments rapidly succeed each other in Egypt, so do the issues depicted by its political commentators. Often, they feel saturated and confused.

But El-Adl maintains that they have a certain responsibility to fulfill.

“We are learning as we go… but we don’t have the luxury of stepping away from politics.”

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