Millennial Letters

In Egypt, Political Cartoons Make the Front Page

“Supreme Guide Seeks Guidance,” a cartoon by the Egyptian artist Andeel, depicts the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohammed Badie, in a therapy session. “Sometimes,” he says, “I suspect that I’m a state security agent, implanted inside the Brotherhood to screw it up.” Andeel’s hashtag reads, “Brotherhood Subconscious.”


Imagine that you check your mailbox one afternoon and find a postcard that shows a smiling Arab family under the words, “A souvenir postcard of the great Egyptian people.”

Then you notice the card feels a little slimy. All of a sudden, you realize it’s covered in blood.

Such was the image drawn by Egyptian cartoonist Andeel in response to deadly clashes in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi’s ousting earlier this month.

In light of what’s happening in Egypt today, it may come off a bit tactless to be examining political cartoons. On the contrary, argues Jonathan Guyer, an Arabic-speaking American who lives in Cairo researching Egyptian humor. He says sidelining political humor in Egypt is to sideline the political discourse itself.

In fact, cartoonists have emerged as the unlikely chroniclers of national political thought, he says. Such is their importance that they frequently appear above the fold on the front page of Egyptian newspapers. Sometimes there’s even a line or two from a local satirist—that’s like the New York Times running Jon Stewart’s latest joke underneath their “All the News That’s Fit to Print” box. Guyer goes so far as to describes cartoonists as “the public conscience of Egypt.”

Guyer would know. He was hanging out with a bunch of cartoonists when news about Morsi, as he put it, “just kind of burst into my friend’s living room.”

“The moment that Morsi’s overthrow was announced, they made up a song and started banging on tambourines, and made a Facebook video that went sort of viral in their communities,” he recalled.

You can’t really quantify the impact of a political cartoon in Egypt, but Guyer calls these artists “ombudsmen” and says they represent the pulse of the people. “They’re keeping everyone accountable, and they’re not just keeping the presidency or the military accountable, but also the opposition leaders, also people they agree with,” he told Millennial Letters on July 22nd. “This is why it’s such a fun project, translating cartoons, because you’re getting at the gut of what Egyptians are thinking,” he explained. “Not just the cursory issues, or not just the headlines, or the statistics, but really what makes people tick.”

Going back to the Egyptian family postcard, which was published a day after more than 50 Morsi supporters were reported killed in clashes in Cairo, Guyer observed that “Egyptian blood is something that reoccurs in tons of cartoons.” To him, Andeel’s image was “about taking this joyous moment, and making sure that we remember the melancholy and the tragedy that’s come along with the recent uprising.”

I asked him if the tone of cartoons had changed since Morsi’s overthrow, and he says it has—but not in the way you might expect.

There’s been a “huge outcry of support for the military, mostly in the semi-official press, sort-of-government-run papers, and also independent newspapers,” Guyer says. The response surprised him because “cartoonists have mocked the military” ever since longtime leader Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by popular protest in February 2011 even after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi came to power. Female cartoonist Doaa El-Adl would illustrate this by drawing a Brotherhood figure in cahoots with a military leader, the two of them toasting glasses of blood, for example. This sentiment was common among the opposition: “For the past year, it kind of seemed like if anyone won—you know, won in inverted commas—it was the military and the Brotherhood,” Guyer says. This doesn’t mean criticism of the military doesn’t exist in Egypt today, just that it isn’t mainstream. Here’s Guyer describing a cartoon by Tawfik that challenges that kind of thinking:

There’s this sort of big, staunchy military general, and a little revolutionary kid with an Egyptian flag. And the kid is asking, to sort of paraphrase, “So when does this democracy thing start, general?” And the guy, the military leader says: “Just wait a minute. Just hold on a bit.”

The implication is clear, but in a way, time may serve opposition ends, because Guyer says “a golden age” of art and humor is emerging in Egypt.

“It’s not just cartoons, it’s art galleries, it’s graffiti, Facebook pages, and cultural events,” he says. “But to me, cartoonists are really the highlight of this, because they’re taking all of these cultural elements and sort of packaging it into a neat joke of the day.”

Guyer calls Egypt the Woody Allen of the Middle East. “The reason I say this isn’t just because Egyptians are funny, but they have this incredible ability to make fun of themselves,” he says, describing them as “willing to laugh at the politician they support, laugh at the constitution they support, laugh at the policies they support, and laugh at themselves—which makes it a really cool lens into what people are thinking when they wake up in the morning.”

Whether or not it will stay this way remains to be seen. Guyer recently spoke to an attorney who is a member of the hard-line Islamic Salafi movement and is suing a cartoonist. Guyer says he asked him: “‘So, what is democracy, in your opinion?’ And this Salafist attorney, he’s a leader in the Salafi bloc, he told me: ‘Are you talking about the democracy we learned about, or the one we believe in?’”

“To me, this gets to the gap for many in the Islamist political community,” Guyer says. “You know, there are the structures and institutions of democracy that you see around the world, and there’s a different interpretation of them that they [the Salafis] are trying to figure out.”

“And that’s why this period is so fascinating, because this Salafi bloc, this sort of hard-right Islamist movement, is really going to become a power broker no matter what happens to the military or the Brotherhood.”

But the reality is, even if Salafis rise to power in Egypt, cartoonists will in some ways continue as they always have—capturing the life of the Egyptian Everyman. And until the economy improves, until gas shortages come to an end, until more jobs are created, the Egyptian Everyman is suffering. Guyer turns to one of his best-loved cartoons, drawn by Abdullah in the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, to illustrate:

“One of my favorite cartoons ever is a guy, he’s smoking a cigarette outside a gas station, and the gas station attendant says: ‘Oh, don’t worry, you can smoke, there’s no diesel left in the tanks.’”

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