With a big smile, Rania Khallaf wonders whether caricature under the Muslim Brotherhood differed from before
The Muslim Brotherhood’s one-year rule gave way to many catastrophic political and economic consequences, caused by the hilariously contradictory performance of ex-president Mohamed Morsi and his prime minister Hisham Kandil. One good point, however, is that this year saw a revival in the political caricature as Egypt’s bold cartoonists seized the golden opportunity to mock the president, a thing which was not done under Hosni Mubarak.
It was not just the performance of Morsi while delivering his perplexing speeches, but also the content, which in many cases resulted in iconic jokes that Egyptians will never forget. The presidential speech was a comic experience for almost all Egyptians, and a rich source for inspiration for cartoonists. And the relatively free atmosphere generated by independent television channels such as CBC and Al-Nahar encouraged the emergence of satirical shows such as the stellar Bassem Youssef’s Al-Bernameg, which I believe was a main factor in the success of the second wave of revolution that climaxed on 30 June. The cartoonists’ voice was not as strong as television’s, largely because the art of caricature had lost momentum under Mubarak. Cartoons were more abundant than ever last year, but their impact was less than desired. Yasser Gaessa, a freelance cartoonist, says television comedy has a much bigger audience. He also points out that many cartoonists have resorted to publishing on Facebook and elsewhere online, rebuilding their audience. “Hence, the traditional cartoon printed in newspapers has slightly lost its appeal,” Gaessa noted. But how did the art of caricature change in the time of the Muslim Brotherhood?
Contrary to the bitter and depressing years of Mubarak’s rule, the disorganised rule of the Brotherhood yielded funny situations and hilarious turns of phrase that often surpassed the cartoonists’ own comic abilities. “The very existence of the Brotherhood in political power in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution is the biggest farce,” Hani Shams, who works for Akhbar Al-Youm newspaper, says: “Now that there was nowhere for them to hide, as the spotlights were all turned on them, even someone watching the news could not stop laughing at the Brotherhood’s fatal mistakes and endless lies. I actually believe we will grow to miss Morsi’s jokes as much as we miss the late Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi for his absurd speeches. One good point that could be in favour of the Brotherhood’s rule is that it opened up the horizons of humour and political satire to their maximum.”
For his part Samir Abdel-Ghani, a prominent freelance cartoonist, said, “The scope of freedom given to cartoonists in Mubarak’s regime was hardly satisfying. And then, the period that preceded Morsi’s regime was very prosperous: freedom of expression almost reached its peak.” Shams also agrees that the duration — a year and half — that preceded the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule was a golden one, when cartoonists were able to criticise any political character. “So, when the Brotherhood came to power, it was already easy to criticise its top figures,” he says. Gaessa on the other hand believes that the last year gave cartoonists their greatest challenge to date: “The majority of cartoonists have failed in portraying the core of the crisis of political Islam. They did not exert any effort to read about the phenomenon. Hence, most cartoonists have clung to some superficial symbols like the beard and galabiya, and resorted to cheap vocal jokes. The majority of cartoonists had perfected certain moulds in the time of Mubarak, and they could not refrain from reproducing those moulds when they suddenly had the opportunity to do so.
Caricatures published last year were vividly varied, however: the character of Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood’s unconditional subordination to the United States were the two main topics. The appearance of Morsi delivering a speech was itself a comic strip material; the bizarre words he used and the simultaneous movement of his arms, tongue and hands, suggested that you were watching a magician not a president. The fact that he seemed incapable of smiling generated many visions of his face. Abdel-Ghani commented that Morsi’s facial expressions are utterly unique: “His features expressed different and opposite reactions simultaneously; and this was hilariously funny.” The iconic joke of “gas and alcohol don’t mix”, Morsi’s own English phrase at an international conference — no less than his tendency to address his “clan” of Islamists, excluding other Egyptians — was a source of laughter. The former has since morphed into a protest sign reading, “Morsi and Egypt don’t mix”.
Morsi’s last speech, delivered shortly before the army’s ultimatum, attempted to amend this depressing performance, as he made an effort to imitate Mubarak’s witty style in delivering speeches — too late. In general, cartoonists focussed on the president’s character at the expense of political and economic failures. The similarity between the Brotherhood and Armed Forces rule and between Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi as dictators were also highlighted: caricatures featuring the Before and After Brotherhood rule were many. Religious extremism and its frequent attacks on the media, the mad fatwas of Brotherhood-affiliated sheikhs and the forced mixing of religion and politics were favourite topics. The hypocrisy of Morsi’s supporters and the day-to-day problems of Egyptians were not tackled as much.
Amr Okasha, who works for Al-Wafd , published by the opposition Wad Party, believes that in many cases cartoonists were not able to spotlight on the president’s contradictory performance. Yet Shams believes that criticising the president’s character was pivotal, and took the lion’s share of political cartoons published last year. “This was largely because he was the sole decision maker. He enjoyed playing the role of the hero as he refused to listen to the demands of the leaders of the opposition parties,” Shams argues. “However, the political caricature started to be harsh on the president since he issued the constitutional decree, which marked the beginning of the Brotherhood’s own failure, and the division of Egyptian society between supporters and opponents.” Okasha says Morsi was repeatedly illustrated as a puppet in the hands of Mohamed Badei, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide, or Khairat Al-Shater, its deputy guide and strong man; but other issues came up as well: “For example, the crisis of the Ethiopian dam threatening Egypt’s water supply was highlighted through reactions to Morsi’s performance at the African Summit.”
Abdel-Ghani says that the ex-president’s character was inspiring to even a semi-professional caricaturist. “Terms like ‘the monkey and his master’, or ‘fingers manipulating Egypt’, invented by Morsi, were themselves inspiring caricatures that did not require any effort from the average cartoonist,” he says. “Indeed, Morsi and his clan were a strategic treasure for cartoonists and Facebook commenters alike. This funny and yet depressing performance of the presidency and its futile government was one good reason behind the cheerful spirit of millions of Egyptians during the last catastrophic year.” Thanks to the seemingly endless economic crisis and political conflict in the country even after the second wave of revolution, he noted, cartoonists might have more material than at any previous time in Egyptian history. “And despite all this depression, people have been laughing more than they ever did in their lives.” For Okasha, “Egypt’s subordination to the United States exactly resembles the relationship between the slave and his master. It was never like that before. In one of my caricatures, I portrayed Morsi kissing the hand of America, personified in the character of President Obama.”
Despite the seemingly unprecedented freedom granted cartoonists under the Brotherhood, censorship went on. Doaa Al-Adl, one of the most professional young cartoonists, was summoned by attorney-general Talaat Abdalla for interrogation, accused of “contempt for religion”. This was due to a caricature she published in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm in which supporters and opponents of the 2012 constitution were portrayed as going to heaven and hell respectively. Al-Adl, a young woman who wears hijab, is famous for her relentless mockery of the Islamists’ childish greed for power and their immoral use of religion to that end. As soon as Morsi came to power, a list of prohibited symbols was dictated, Abdel-Ghani recalls: “You should not draw a man with a beard, or a veiled woman, also men of religion were a red line, I was told when I submitted my caricatures to Al-Wady newspaper, and the Progres Egyptienne. Luckily enough, Al-Masry Al-Youm, did not mind my sarcastic caricatures.” The list of prohibited themes also haunted other veteran caricaturists like Gomaa, at the daily Al-Ahram, and Ahmed Toghan at Al-Gomhuriya.
Okasha, who recently won the Cartoon Movement competition, was only slightly affected by censorship. “My newspaper asked me few times to lighten up in order to pass this period and avoid clashes with the Brotherhood. However, my harsh satirical cartoon found its way to Facebook and other social media websites. Other cartoons were published on European cartoon websites and in American newspapers.” For Shams it was more difficult: “As my newspaper is considered as a pro-governmental publication, it was only normal that the scope for criticising the president or his government should be limited. It was officially prohibited to criticise the Al-Nahda project, or any of the ex-president’s involuntary jokes.” Now that the Brotherhood regime has been toppled by the second wave of the 25 January Revolution, and the unrestricted source of hilarious jokes is unlocked once again, how will cartoonists utilise this new golden opportunity? How will unlimited freedom of speech affect cartoons? “I am hopeful that cartoonists will seize this opportunity and go beyond it,” Gaessa said. Clinging just to the political scene and its contradictory picture does not make a professional cartoonist, he noted, adding that he expects a positive shift in the art of caricature in the near future.