Under Morsi: Red Lines Gone Gray (Part 1/2)

Political cartoons are useful survey instruments for mapping permissible speech in Egypt. This is the first of a two part series.

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. But the inherently ironic logic of cartooning means that the volume and barb of this critique is never straightforward.

Indeed, 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 internalized 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.” 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 satirizing the president. Nevertheless, during President Mohammed 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. Additionally, nearly 70 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.  

As the enforcement of the laws became increasingly arbitrary, cartoonists navigated tricky watersIn Morsi’s first six months, at least 24 lawsuits were filed against media actors for “insulting the president,” breaking a record set in 1909. 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. Yet, like Article 178, it is vaguely defined.

By the time Morsi took office, the number and intensity of blasphemy charges had escalated. 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 organization, 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. 

Cartoonists responded by skewering Morsi and his colleagues for politicizing 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).

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.

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.

*[Note: Read the final part on October 11. This article was originally published by Jadaliyya.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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