Being a Political Cartoonist in Egypt Has Always Been Hard. It’s Even Harder After the Charlie Hebdo Attacks.

Photo: Benedict Evans; Cartoon by Makhlouf

CAIRO — “Look at this: Freedom!” said veteran Egyptian cartoonist Amro Selim in Arabic, pointing at the irreverent drawings of Maurice “Sine” Sinet, once a cartoonist for the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo: caricatures of the pope and Jesus, toilet humor, as well as plenty of nudes. “You could never draw this in the Arab World,” he said.

Selim manages the cartoons department of the popular Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm. In Egypt, political cartoons not only chronicle the day’s news and moods but often represent the most forceful political commentary in an environment where opposition voices tend to be stifled.

When I asked him about the massacre at the French magazine, Selim told me that he was “against the drawing of the prophet” — which is not allowed in Islam — “and against terrorism.” Then he pulled a book from his shelf: L’Almanach 2013 du Dessin de Presse et de la Caricature, a collection of politically incorrect cartoons. On the cover was a cartoon of Mohammed. Inside, among other tales of censorship, is the story of Selim’s colleague Doaa Eladl, the most prominent female Egyptian cartoonist. When the Islamist Mohammed Morsi was president in 2012, his Muslim Brotherhood supporters sued Eladl for a cartoon she had drawn mocking the Brothers’ religious rhetoric though a caricature of Adam and Eve. (While Adam is considered a prophet in Islam, cartoonists in the Muslim world have drawn him for generations.) Extremist attorneys attempted to intimidate Eladl, using a penal code regulation that prohibits blasphemy. She received death threats, as did Selim, her mentor, as they both continued to criticize the Brotherhood. The case was ultimately dropped.

When Selim moved from a state-run newspaper to an independent one in 2005, he drew the first caricatures of President Hosni Mubarak, breaking a decades-old taboo and potentially a penal code regulation that prohibits “insulting the president.” (The law is still on the books.) At his initiative, Al-Dostur fostered young illustrators, whom he urged to “shatter the god-like image of the ruler who we cannot draw.” The group that he mentored has gone on to pen the harshest revolutionary cartoons against Mubarak’s autocratic state and its successors.

The tradition of editorial cartooning in Egypt dates back to the 1870s, proliferating with the publication of glossy Arabic magazines in the 1920s. Each major Cairo newspaper boasts several political cartoonists on staff and publishes up to a dozen illustrations daily. Sometimes a particularly potent cartoon appears above the fold. Cartoons are where mockery of the state and social currents tends to be most potent in Egyptian discourse, with backhanded messages that challenge the status quo far more than an editorial ever could. Though today some 70 regulations limit free speech — codes that protect religion and state institutions, such as the presidency and the courts, from insults — many cartoonists consider it part of their job to find a way to work around the rules. Sometimes they sneak in harsh criticism using symbols and subtleties. If they can’t sneak those dissident views past the paper’s editor, the illustrations go straight to Facebook.

These ongoing encounters with the law, as well as extralegal pressure, are part of the reason why Charlie Hebdo was met by an outpouring of support from Egyptian artists following the deadly attack. “Charlie Hebdo, for me, was one of the most significant periodicals or publications for cartoons,” said the cartoonist Anwar, who also draws for Al-Masry Al-Youm. “This doesn’t mean that I fully agree with the whole message [Charlie Hebdo] carried, but in the end this is what cartooning is about. This is real cartooning: It’s to be harsh and, sometimes, you will be vulgar.”

In a bold move, Anwar and his cartoonist colleague Makhlouf wrote a sober and in-depth profile of the slain cartoonists and the history of Charlie Hebdo in their newspaper, which wasn’t received well. No Egyptian publications have published the offending illustrations of the Prophet Mohammed. “The role of the cartoonist is not just to draw about the event but to also transform considerations about censorship, to transform people’s understanding,” Makhlouf told me. I asked Anwar if the image of the Prophet Mohammed on the latest cover of Charlie Hebdo offended him. “No, I am used to it!” he said, laughing. “Maybe this was one of the least insulting covers they did.”

After a week of strong messages in support of Charlie Hebdo, Egyptian illustrators are back to the daily grind. They are drawing about school exams, power shortages, football, jihadis, and the upcoming fourth anniversary of the Egyptian uprising. Here, an introduction to eight of the cartoonists, photographed by Benedict Evans during one week in Cairo last year.

Egypt’s Cartoonists, After Charlie Hebdo