That joke isn't funny anymore: Cairo's snarky cartoonists get the message

Egypt's media have swung decisively behind President Sisi and promised to support government policy on national security. Hundreds of journalists have warned of a 'new fascism' under the guise of fighting terrorism.

Louisa Loveluck
Cartoonist Doaa el Adl sits at her desk at the privately-owned newspaper Al Masry Al Youm in Cairo on Oct 15, 2014. Egyptian cartoonists are under increased pressure from the government and its supporters to tone down their critical tone.

The newspaper bureau is closed. “Pass by tomorrow,” reads one sign, slapped across the metal shutters. “Closed until further notice,” reads another.

The building is not real – it appears in a cartoon published in an Egyptian daily newspaper, Al-Masry Al-Youm – but it may as well be. As popular strongman President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi completes his fifth month in office, many critics of Egypt's worsening human-rights record risk having their doors closed for good.

Egypt’s cartoonists have traditionally been among society's most searing political critics. Straddling the line between journalism and satire, they can express what others can’t. “The cartoon is a weapon,” says Anwar, the pen behind last week’s cartoon. “All artists have the gun - they just need to know when, where and whom to shoot.”

Yet his trenchant image stood out for its rarity. After three years of revolutionary tumult, and the fall of two presidents, Egypt’s subversive cartoonists are mostly taking another tack. Gone are the irreverent depictions of the leader of the day. And dissenting media outlets, particularly those linked to Mr. Sisi’s Islamist predecessor, Mohamed Morsi, have been forcibly closed, or have ceased publication of their own accord, wary of voicing criticism of Egypt’s popular new leader.

“There are periods in history that are not suitable for serious criticism,” says Douaa el Adel, another cartoonist at Al-Masry Al-Youm. “You can criticize, but you must not bring down the system - these people who chant against the military regime don’t understand that the only option is the Muslim Brotherhood." 

Most media are firmly on board. On Oct. 26, leading newspaper editors convened to issue to a statement supporting “all measures taken by the state in combating terrorists and protecting national security." A week earlier, Sisi had called on Egyptians to rally in the face of terrorism following two militant attacks on soldiers in the restive North Sinai region left 33 dead. It was the deadliest day for the Egyptian army in decades.

There has been pushback. Over three hundred journalists signed their own pledge over the weekend, saying the editors’ statement “does not distinguish between fighting terrorism and initiating a new fascism." 

Sisi is hardly the first Egyptian leader seeking to neuter the news. For decades, successive dictators ensured that the media broadly supported the government and its policies. Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first popularly elected leader, also wielded power as a blunt instrument against reporters, cartoonists, and artists.  

In 2012-13, Islamist lawyers went after those who depicted religious leaders in a manner they deemed offensive; a host of leading cartoonists, journalists and television presenters were saddled with lawsuits accusing them of insulting religion.

Bulwark against fundamentalism

Egypt’s new leadership, which came to power after a military coup, casts itself as the bulwark against a political trend that indulged Islamic fundamentalism and dreamed of turning the country into a theocracy. That tilt, and the popularity of the July 2013 coup, makes cartooning a perilous profession for those who like to poke fun at those in power.

Amr Selim, an elder statesman of Cairo's cartooning scene, says the space for dissent has shrunk. And like Ms. Adel, he sees his work as a patriotic duty: “Not everything is perfect, but Egypt must move forward,” he says.

It wasn’t always this way. In the repressive days of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Selim was the first to break the informal ban on depicting the leader of the day, drawing him from behind.

“A lot of people say that cartoonists pushed the revolution forward because we broke taboos and showed another side to things,” he says. During the 2011 uprising that unseated Mubarak, Selim says he was deeply moved to find protesters carrying his images on placards in Tahrir Square.

Things changed under the interim junta that followed. Amid a febrile atmosphere, cartoonists and journalists pushed the envelope, learning by trial and error what the authorities of the day deemed acceptable. The results were popular, often spreading across social media like wildfire. Some received threats for their criticism of the army.

Lawsuits for insulting religion

But under Morsi, the atmosphere started to change. Both the administration and its Muslim Brotherhood base were acutely sensitive to criticism. Adel and Selim soon faced lawsuits and threats over their cartoons.

“Being sued for insulting the president is one matter, but being accused of insulting religion is another,” says Adel. “I know I’m a good Muslim, and I wear the hijab. But I started to fear for my safety when I went out on the street.”

Her most controversial cartoon depicted members of the ultraconservative Salafist movement using religious promises to encourage support for a constitution with an Islamist slant.

“I drew cartoons like this because I wanted to protect religion,” Adel says. “I do not believe it belongs in politics.”

Since the fall of the Brotherhood, Adel and Selim have kept criticism to a minimum. They insist that they receive no instructions from the top, but concede that the threat of a backlash from Sisi loyalists remains a concern. Adel says she worries about being singled out for mockery by one of Egypt's popular television shock-jocks.

On Adel’s desk sits a recent cartoon that she particularly likes. It shows a harried looking journalist, being harangued by a pack of angry chat show hosts. “It’s like they’re telling him what to think,” she explains.

Pressure on media outlets

Pressure also comes from Egypt's feared security forces. Last month, the editor-in-chief and a reporter from Al-Masry Al-Youm’ were hauled before state security prosecutors and interrogated for fourteen hours after the paper declared it would publish investigation records into alleged fraud in the 2012 presidential election. A print run of the paper was also recently pulled over an interview it featured with an Egyptian spy. 

Anwar says little has changed since 2011. “It’s still the case that everyone is seen as being with one side, or against it,” he says. “And most people now are supporters of the regime.”

“The only guarantee of freedom of speech, as I see it, is the existence of cartoonists." 

But just days later, the newspaper published his image of the shuttered office on the inside page. And on Thursday, it was Adel’s turn to send another shot across the bows. In her cartoon, a journalist edges along a tightrope labeled "the margin of freedom." Below, waits the hand of authority, its fingers poised to flick and send him spinning.

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