Egypt’s cartoon revolution
The success of Egypt’s opposition newspaper Ad-Dustour is partly the result of its policy to attract the best of the country’s cartoonists. But do cartoons have the power to change people? ‘Perhaps not but at least we are doing what we can.’
About 50 meters from the banks of the Nile, a mass of dreadlocks is hanging over a drawing of a man and a cow in a hospital waiting room. The dreads belong to Makhrouf, and right now, he’s putting his politics on paper.
“You can see the poor man with a cow; he’s talking to someone, and he’s saying: ‘Me and my cow are sick and we need free medical services,’“ explained the 25 year-old cartoonist.
“The other man hasn’t said anything yet, but I think he will say no….The idea is that the man and the cow have the same disease. They are all working class, animal working class.”
There are several desks in the room, and a whole lot of graffiti on the walls. Down the hall, the journalists and editors of Ad-Dustour newspaper are struggling to find the words to describe what they say is the failed presidency of Hosni Mubarak – without going too far. In here, however, the ink pens are for sketching, and the rules are quite different.
“Cartoon is an art of assault. You are attacking something negative you see,” said Qundeel, who at 21 years old, is the youngest of eight cartoonists at Ad-Doustor. (Both Qundeel and Makhrouf use only one name.)
The daily, and even more so, the weekly editions of the paper are filled with social and political cartoons. It is an experiment that began in 2004, and has proven so successful that it’s being imitated by other newspapers in Egypt.
These days, Qundeel’s favorite topics are water shortages, labor strikes, and of course the ever-present Palestinian issue. Makhrouf has been drawn to pollution and the lack of quality health care. In a country where social commentary regularly lands bloggers in jail, the cartoons being churned out at Ad Dustour are constantly skirting a thin line.
Recently, editor-in-chief Ibrahim Issa wrote a commentary about a Cairo neighborhood that was greatly lacking in basic services, including clean water. In the editorial, he lamented that neglect by the government was the cause of the unsanitary conditions. A lawyer from the part of town being discussed filed suit against the editor, claiming that he had insulted president Mubarak.
(Note: Issa and four other newspaper editors are appealing a one-year jail sentence after Egyptian authorities charged them in September with “humiliating the symbols of the ruling National Democratic Party.”)
While Mubarak claimed no involvement, Qundeel said it was clearly a tactic, orchestrated from the top, with the aim of “annoying” the paper and its editor – quite possibly in retaliation for a publication which spends a lot of its time doing the same to the president.
“We are against [Mubarak] because he ignores peoples’ needs, and because he is so arrogant and undemocratic,” Qundeel said. His personal complaints about Mubarak are that he’s “an agent for America,” in terms of foreign policy, and has a stellar record of undemocratic rule at home.
Despite the overt ‘bring down Mubarak’ attitude of Ad -Dustour, some sort of self-censorship is unavoidable. Makhrouf said that sometimes controversial cartoons are delayed, so that by the time they are published, the sting is gone. And then there are the ones that simply never make it to print.
Makhrouf digs up one of his latest banned cartoons, and its replacement. Kept out of this week’s paper was a drawing of two dogs: a big one, with a metal safe in its jaws, and a smaller pooch with a key in its mouth. To an Egyptian eye, there can be no doubt that Makhrouf is talking about Mubarak and the son to whom he wants to transfer power some day.
But the editors told Makhrouf that portraying Mubarak as a dog could be seen as offensive, and over his objections, the cartoon was shelved. Instead readers were treated to a drawing of a king with a crown pushing an angry-looking, screaming baby in a carriage, also wearing a crown.
Makhrouf said the censoring of his cartoons has increased in the three years he’s drawn for the paper, but he doesn’t blame the editor in chief.
“He’s not banning because he wants to. He’s banning it because the society and the conditions are not OK with you saying these things. He’s being careful, not trying to control us.”
Editor In-Chief Issa has good reason to be careful. Ad Dustour (translated: ‘The Constitution’) was originally started up in the 1990’s and shut down by Mubarak’s government for a decade.
Issa fought the case through legal means for seven years until he was finally allowed to publish again; one of his first moves was to seek out some of the best young cartoonists in the country to give the paper a different flavor, and engage readers in stories they normally would skip right over.
The importance of blogging
Egyptians are quickly absorbing the power that blogs have in the political sphere, and Ad Dustour has dedicated an entire page in the weekly edition to the topic of blogs; Qundeel gets to do the cartoons that accompany them.
One recent paper featured drawings of one computer spying on another, a mouse challenging a police-looking watchdog, and a policeman standing behind a PC monitor, which reveals his underwear.
“I wanted to say that blogging is revealing how weak our police really are. Lots of bloggers have posted videos of people being beaten up in police stations. I want the policemen to know that they are being watched and that people know what they are doing.”
But the problem these days is that it’s the bloggers who are being watched, and sometimes jailed.
“If I was scared to go to jail for a blog I wouldn’t even work for the newspaper,” says Qundeel. And he has hope that there are many others like him.
“Blogging will grow and create a new generation of people who are more used to expressing themselves and less scared. Our parents are scared, and older people in general are scared because they have witnessed many things and they never had the opportunity to expre
ss themselves. They just lived their lives silently and never tried to talk, so they are too scared to try now. But our generation is I think, more brave.”
Originally from a small town on the Mediterranean coast, Qundeel started out at age 17 with a drawing for a children’s magazine. There was no pay, but his mother, a well-known poet and author herself, paid him a 10 pounds (less than $2) as encouragement. Two years later, he got his first month’s salary from Ad Dustour – less than $40.
Makhrouf was paid 30 Egyptian pounds (about $5) for his first cartoon at a small newspaper. He spent the next few years making ends meet by drawing portraits for people and doing small jobs here and there, then got a break and was hired by a book publishing house for the equivalent of $80 a month.
Finally, the call came from the newly reformed Ad Doustor, and while he’s still not making a lot of money, “the experiment is working.”
He means not only for the paper, but for him as well. Makhrouf’s work has been noticed, and he’s gotten work at other publications. Best of all, he hasn’t been pigeon-holed yet as an “anti-regime cartoonist.”
Ad Doustor, meanwhile, is selling 50,000 copies a day, and the weekly edition (the one filled with dozens of cartoons) moves more than 120,000. According to Qundeel, the paper is now ‘second in sales, and third in importance.’”
In Egypt, seeing Ad Doustor’s success, other newspapers are hiring their own cartoonists. Qundeel is glad the other papers are recognizing the power of the cartoon, but warns that if it’s not done with solid politics behind it, they are doomed to fail.
He used the example of Al-Ahram, a pro-government paper, with the highest circulation in the country. They had several cartoonists, but having to back the government line, “made (the artists) take their teeth off and cut their claws.”
So are these young mavericks making a difference?
“I wish I could really change people [with my cartoons], but I don’t think they are going to,” Makhrouf said. “I may be in conflict with reality, I may confront it and assault it. I may tell the people what’s bad about it, but I can’t change it, not in Egypt.”
Qundeel added that, “people might know that if they went out and had a revolution, they could change the president and the government, but they don’t. Maybe they are too scared, maybe they just don’t care anymore and they think that living in bad conditions is better than going to jail or getting killed.”
But, Makhrouf said: “At least we feel we are doing what we can. And when I’m asked, I can say that the failure of our government is not my fault.”