At a young age, I developed a profound interest in politics, which made me observe how political expression has taken different forms in Egypt throughout the past few decades. Freedom of expression and censorship have been constant factors shaping the political climate; utilizing humor and satire to critique politicians, heads of state, and state policies have become inevitable. Humor and satire can express what is forbidden or whose voicing is feared; they can defy all forms of authority and ignite grassroots change. Political humor and satire also have the power to mask the intensity of what is communicated. On the surface, they could appear as a simple joke, meme, or cartoon, but on a deeper level they are loaded with bold, oppositional, and revolutionary stances and ideologies.
Since the late 19th century, satirical political expression has taken numerous and diverse forms. In each period, artists, designers, writers, musicians, and even the general public have utilized the media and technologies, as well as degrees of freedom of speech; they have had to creatively communicate their political stances while avoiding censorship.
The existence of censorship and creative control in Egypt is not foreign, since it has been used by the state to shape public opinion and ensure that only state ideologies and narratives are propagated. Not only has censorship been applied to the publishing sphere, such as books, magazines, and newspapers, but has extended also to cinema, theater, and music productions. One of the earliest traces of censorship in the history of modern Egypt dates back to 1823, when Muhammad Ali (Ottoman ruler of Egypt) commanded that his permission was necessary for the Bulaq Press (also known as the Amiriya Press, that he had initiated three years before) to print any books. Years later, a nationalist uprising known as the 'Urābī Revolution ignited in 1881, revolting against Ottoman governor of Egypt, Khedive Tewfik Pasha, as well as the foreign control over Egypt. Consequently, a new government was formed that issued a law in 1881 for censoring publications and forcing limitations on the press.
This general climate of state censorship did not hinder the creative outputs aimed at political critique and expression. In fact, in 1876 a satirical anti-British and antiestablishment newspaper Abou Naddara (Man with Glasses) was founded by Yaʻqūb Ṣannūʻ. Ṣannūʻ was an Egyptian-Italian-Jewish journalist, nationalist activist, and playwright, and one of the pioneers of political satire in Egypt. The newspaper was discontinued after publishing 15 issues, and resumed again in 1878. Through its uniquely crafted cartoons that consisted of fine-line monochrome drawings coupled with handwritten Arabic and French descriptive captions, Abou Naddara was a strong opposing voice to Khedive Ismail and his regime. Ṣannūʻ developed a series of fictional characters that denoted the Khedive and other politicians as a way to critique them.
Abou Naddara was a massive success, widely popular among the Egyptian public from various social and educational backgrounds, even being spotted in government offices. In addition, the bilingual nature of Abou Naddara made it easier to reach a global audience. The newspaper’s sharp critique of Egypt’s leadership resulted in tension with Khedive Ismail, two failed assassinations, and accordingly Yaʻqūb Ṣannūʻ’s exile to Paris where he resumed publishing the newspaper. To avoid being banned, Ṣannūʻ changed the newspaper’s name several times and began to print Abou Naddara on tiny sheets of paper which were then placed in other publications and luggage to be secretly sent to and distributed in Egypt.
Al Kachkoul is another satirical magazine founded by Sulayman Fawzi in 1921, standing against the British occupation of Egypt, with a distinctive voice critiquing the local political scene, and especially the Wafd Party and its leader Saad Zaghloul. Al Kachkoul was iconic, with its bold colored caricatures drawn by the Spanish artist Juan Sintès. Unlike Abou Naddara, Al Kachkoul targeted the local audience, having Arabic as the only descriptive language. At this time, the rate of illiteracy in Egypt was significantly high, which made publications such as Abou Naddara and Al Kachkoul influential since they were heavily visual and deployed cartoons, making it possible for anyone who could not read or write to grasp the intended political message. Furthermore, the accompanying explanatory text in both publications was in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, which made it familiar and relevant to the general public.
Further censorship took form in laws: first, the Censorship Law no. 430 issued in 1955 during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, that also applied to movies, songs, plays, disks, and sound recording tapes. Second was the Censorship Decree no. 220 issued in 1976 during Anwar Al Sadat’s presidency, that aimed to regulate censorship on audio and audiovisual outputs. The presence of these laws did not intercept the attempts of various writers and artists to express their dissenting political stances. It was, in fact, a golden era for political cartooning, led by prominent Egyptian caricaturists as Mustafa Hussein, Bahgat Osman, and Ahmad Hijazi. They all wittily employed humor and satire in their caricatures to address and criticize a wide range of sociopolitical issues concerning the Egyptian population. A common approach taken by these caricaturists was to create fictional characters that creatively and indirectly challenged the status quo. An example of that is Kambura, an extreme opportunist and a corrupt parliament member, who was the outcome of a longstanding collaboration between Mustafa Hussein and Ahmad Ragab, a prominent Egyptian satirist and journalist. Hussein and Ragab’s iconic partnership resulted in numerous satirical cartoons that vibrantly captured daily Egyptian chronicles and humorously depicted its figures. Another great example is Bahgatos, a character created by Bahgat Osman for the book titled al-Diktaturiya lil-Mubtadi’in (Dictatorship for Beginners), published in 1989. Bahgatos was depicted as an absolute dictator ruling the fictional republic of Bahgatiya, through a series of caricatures which employed a great deal of satire and hammered on issues like corruption, lack of freedom, and poverty.
Moreover, the book covers of Qiṣṣat Malik wa-rbaʻat Wizārāt (A Story of a King and Four Ministries), ‘Abd al-Nāsir (Abdel Nasser), and Layālī wa-Nazawāt Fārūq (Farouk’s Nights and Whims) reveal the evident satirical visual approach in depicting Egypt’s former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Farouk, and former Prime Ministers Ali Maher, Naguib al-Hilali, and Hussein Sirri. However, these books were published at times when all the criticized individuals were no longer alive; this could be indicative of the longstanding limits of visual representation of political figures in Egypt, especially in the case of presidents or heads of state.
Many years later, a graphic novel called Metro was created by Magdy El Shafee and published in 2008, tackling corruption, poverty, and social injustice. Metro’s story unfolds through the chronicles of two young Egyptians, Shehab and Mustafa, who navigate their way around the brutal nature of their surroundings. To defy the corrupt system and channel their persistent frustrations, they resort to crime and plan a bank heist to steal five million dollars. It was not well received by the authorities and was banned for “offending public morals” and for its bold political critique, in addition to the inclusion of a sexual scene. El Shafee and the publisher also received charges and were fined by the court.
Later in 2011, a satirical comic magazine named Tok Tok was founded by a group of Egyptian artists: Shennawy, Makhlouf, Hisham Rahma, Andeel, and Tawfik. Tok Tok and Metro, on both visual and literary levels, were clear in their insurgency toward hegemony, patriarchy, and authoritarianism. Unique in both publications was their authentic artistic representation of the bustling Egyptian life and population. The characters in Metro and Tok Tok were truly local and were inspired by personas one could easily stumble upon on the Egyptian streets. The smart use of ʻĀmmīyah (slang Egyptian dialect), coupled with vivid depictions of contemporary sociopolitical struggles, made both publications successful in portraying and relating to the Egyptian public, especially the youth who were the main catalyst of the 25 January revolution in 2011.
In 25 Jan 2011 there was an unprecedented shift in the Egyptian political scene, and accordingly all visual and literary tools aimed to represent it. For the first time in years, there was a physical space where people could chant and create banners, posters, and street art to express their political stances and demands. It was an opportunity for anyone to employ whichever visual language and elements they chose, which resulted in numerous visual outputs dense with dark humor and satire. A large percentage of those visual outputs were targeted toward Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s former president, whether banners demanding him to leave, or posters making fun of his long-lasting corruption.
Egypt’s 25 January revolution was among the Arab Spring protests and uprisings that took place in other countries in the region, impacting their climate of political expression. One of these examples is the Syrian revolution that ignited in 2011, and more specifically the small town of Kafranbel in Idlib province. This town became most known for its protest banners with a great deal of dark humor and sarcasm. The banners included sharp-witted messages criticizing the Syrian government and president, as well as countries like the U.S., Russia, and Iran. The simplicity of the banners’ visual language was a primary reason behind their power, consisting of just black and red type neatly handwritten in capital letters on a huge white canvas. The main statement was mostly written in black, while red was used for the caption: The Syrian Revolution – From Kafranbel, followed by the date the banner was created. Moreover, the usage of English made the banners smartly result in a wide global reach and awareness about the situation in Syria. Kafranbel’s residents presented a solid manifestation of how one can creatively utilize the limited resources available to effectively communicate political stances and evoke change.
The spring of freedom in Egypt did not last for long, and over time, censorship continued tightening its grip over visual, audio, and literary productions aiming at political expression and critique. The Supreme Council for Media Regulations Law (SCMR) also referred to as the Press and Media Law no. 180, was issued in 2018 to control the press, media outlets, published audio and video content, and broadcasting; this control even extended to electronic media, websites, blogs, and satellite channels. The Press and Media Law stated that media outlets and institutions founded and operating in Egypt required an SCMR license to perform their activities. It was also possible to be subjected to imprisonment, fine payment, and banning in the case of spreading “false news” or producing content that infringes the constitution, public morals, and public order. Beside this, there were various attacks between 2015 and 2019 on publishing houses and bookstores such as Merit publishing house, Al-Karama community library, Alef bookstore chain, and Al-Balad bookstore.
Meanwhile in the digital sphere, the Global Network Defending and Promoting Free Expression, IFEX (formerly known as International Freedom of Expression Exchange) reported in 2020 that around 600 websites were blocked, including 394 virtual private networks and 116 news outlets. In parallel, social media platforms became more and more popular in Egypt. The youth reverted to being marginalized with little opportunity to express their political views or lead an active role in the political landscape.
I believe that this was a key factor in a rise in the creation of memes and web comics charged with political satire, since their metaphorical nature makes them more immune to censorship. For example, indirect references and critiques could be made of political figures without having to literally visualize them. Another direction taken by famous Egyptian meme pages like Asa7be Sarcasm Society has been to focus more on societal and economic issues rather than producing memes targeted at specific political figures. Asa7be (“my friend” in slang Egyptian) was founded by Shady Sedky and Ahmed Abdel Aziz in 2012 and currently has almost 16 million followers on Facebook.
What is interesting about a meme is how it is an open-source output that allows for creative repurposing and recycling of elements from movies, music videos, TV shows, the football world, and basically any visual asset on the internet. It is strikingly evident how most of the visual and textual references are drawn from popular Egyptian movies, a reflection of how cinema has been an integral force in shaping the culture of humor in Egypt for many decades. When the Egyptian pound was severely devalued in October 2022, the country’s economic situation declined, and the price of almost everything increased dramatically. And as this crisis affected the whole population, a huge number of memes created during that time addressed and criticized this pressing issue.
Other than Asa7be, al-Waraqah (The Paper) is a popular comic page on Facebook with almost 3.2 million followers. It was initiated in 2014 by Islam Gawish, a prominent Egyptian cartoonist and webcomic producer. al-Waraqah employs a great deal of sarcasm and satire targeted at political and everyday societal encounters. The visual language and system of al-Waraqah’s comics is evidently consistent, from the beige-colored paper background to the black-lined sketched illustrations accompanied by handwritten scripts/captions. Even though al-Waraqah has adopted an indirect approach in critiquing the social and political situation, its founder was detained by the Egyptian authorities in January 2016 and released a day later.
Notable about memes and web comics is how they can attain higher dissemination of political expression and therefore reach a wider audience, both on local and international scales. Furthermore, unlike publishing, memes and web comics require minimal funding to produce; this resolves a huge obstacle various artists, designers, and writers have faced throughout the years because the production of creative and satirical political expression has mostly relied on independent or even self-funding, challenging to achieve up till now.
Another case of utilizing the digital sphere to shed light on the struggling political landscape in the Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA) region is AlHudood. Translated as “The Limits,’ AlHudood is a bilingual satirical news website created by Jordanian-Palestinian Isam Uraiqat in 2013. It consists of a series of articles, caricatures, and comics heavily infused with dark humor and satire to address issues like corruption, injustice, lack of democracy, and freedom, in addition to ridiculing Arab presidents and politicians. Initially, AlHudood’s focus was only the Jordanian political and social landscapes; however, it later shifted to report on the entire region and even the whole world.
Its publication in the formal Arabic language (al-Fuṣḥá) has been a key factor in the high engagement and consumption of AlHudood's content by countless Arab-speaking nations. An example of AlHudood’s prevalence is when a satirical piece reported that Santa Claus was caught and had his presents seized by Jordanian authorities as he did not pay customs duty. The story went viral, with several local news platforms reporting this as a real incident, which led the Jordanian Public Security Directorate to make a public announcement to clarify that this incident did not occur and that Santa had not been arrested.
The notion of utilizing humor and satire, and new media and technologies, as well as creatively adapting to the constantly changing boundaries of censorship, to produce political expression is always astounding. In 30 or 40 years from now, new forms of creative political expression might evolve, in Egypt or elsewhere in the world. And I believe that these evolving forms can act as a measure for a country’s political landscape—which is a truly remarkable phenomenon.