The following is an adaptation of remarks I delivered at ICWA’s semi-annual gala on June 2 at the Cosmos Club, Washington, DC.
On March 6, a colossal head of an ancient pharaoh was uncovered in a 10-meter deep pit in the city of Matariya, an hour north of Cairo. The excavators wrapped it for protection overnight in a Spiderman blanket, probably the first thing they saw lying around. It was a gift to Egyptian jokers and meme-makers on social media. Such is Egypt in 2017, where the ancient and modern collide on a daily basis. The pharaonic past is inescapable, unearthed in this instance as civil engineers were plotting a new shopping arcade.
The Century Foundation invited me to contribute a chapter on Egyptian cartoons and comics for Arab Politics beyond the Uprisings: Experiments in an Era of Resurgent Authoritarianism. This chapter builds on extensive fieldwork conducted during my two-year ICWA fellowship, offering the most comprehensive study to date of the challenges facing cartoonists in Egypt. I am grateful for the perceptive feedback provided by co-editors Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna, who helped sharpen my argument and analysis. The book, which features chapters from a number of distinguished scholars and journalists, will launch in June in New York and Beirut. It can also be read at the Century Foundation’s website here.
Abstract: In print and online, Egyptian cartoonists have created sites of political dissent in defiance of a state-sponsored crackdown on opposition movements, public protest, and free speech. Based on analyses of cartoons and interviews with the artists, this chapter argues that cartoonists have expanded the red lines of acceptable discourse by forging workarounds and challenging official censorship. In the absence of traditional spaces for free speech and political dissent, cartoonists serve as a vanguard for pushing the envelope, opening opportunities to criticize authoritarianism and abuses of power by the state.
I presented a version of this paper in February at “Framing War and Conflict in Comics,” the second annual Symposium on Arab Comics at the American University of Beirut.
When General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi ran for the Egyptian presidency in the spring of 2014, the children’s magazine Samir published a stoic caricature of him its cover. This wasn’t the first time that Sisi, who had overthrown the country’s first democratically elected president a year prior, had appeared on the cover of the kids magazine. A couple of months earlier the curly-haired boy Samir, the magazine’s signature character and namesake, held a gilded framed portrait of a uniformed Sisi with the headline, “Egypt’s authentic son.”
“We had a very big problem when we had published that caricature,” Shahira Khalil, the chief editor of Samir tells me at her office at the state publishing house Dar Al-Hilal, in a grand, century-old building. “Some people, they told us, ‘You are politicizing children.’” Liberal parents were angry that the magazine was glorifying the junta leader. The “radical Muslims,” as Khalil calls the ousted and now illegal Muslim Brotherhood, were likewise upset that the leader who oversaw a massacre was being lionized. Even the mainstream media, which was categorically pro-Sisi, was not sure what to make of the cover at a time when caricatures of the former general were rare.
“Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads,” goes the adage. At the Cairo International Book Fair, where hundreds of publishers and thousands of readers gather each winter, everybody writes, publishes, and reads.
While the sclerotic institutions of state-funded culture remain conservative forces with an outsized role in Egyptian letters, independent publishers continue to push the limits and introduce new voices from within and without the Arab region. At the fair, you can find the latest catalogues of free presses from across the Arab and Muslim world, periodicals from a century ago, or quirky delights like contemporary children’s books from Syria or Yemen—that is, if you can find your way around the colossal fairgrounds. Since there is no map or guide—at least not one that’s of any use—let me give you a tour.