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

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

Throughout Mohammed 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, June 26, 2012); Morsi splattered with blood (Anwar, January 27, 2013); and 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 30 civilians were killed in the Suez zone in 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 a 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.

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.” 

After the print run, the publisher pulled the issue and apologized. “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.

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. 

According to the artist and the magazine’s managing editor, it was the Coptic Church who shouted the 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 14,000 “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.

“Why Do You Criticize 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 18 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 criticize the Military Council? We are good, and we love the country,” Abdallah remembered the official saying. “[The officer] said it gently though.” 

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. 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.

By 2013, it seems 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 helps to train “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.”

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 Hosni 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.”

*[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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