The Contours of ‘Permissible Speech’ in Egypt

Jonathan Guyer, editor of the blog Oum Cartoon, has just published an examination of cartoons and Egypt’s shifting red lines, “Under Morsi, Red Lines Gone Gray“:

Here, Andeel has a mouth "closed for prayer." But they can be closed for/by other things as well.
Here, Andeel has a mouth “closed for prayer.” But they can be closed for/by other things as well.

Guyer writes that:

The job of political cartoonists is to push the envelope. But what happens when the size and shape of the envelope changes? That, in effect, is what has been happening ever since Hosni Mubarak was removed from power by the combination of a mass uprising and a military coup. Since then, the contours of permissible speech have been shifting constantly. This has led as much to confusion as it has to creativity.

Cartooning, as he writes, is a staple of Egyptian public discourse. Single-panel cartoons are important enough in Egypt to appear on the front page of a newspaper, and they are a way of speaking to a wide swath of public, managing as they do to distill a great deal of social commentary into a single panel.

For many reasons, as Guyer writes, “political cartoons serve as useful survey instruments for mapping the permissible speech of a given moment in Egypt.” They are, like newspapers, far more accessible than literature, and yet are more ambiguous than reportage. They are a visual form, but not, Guyer notes, as strictly controlled as film or TV.

“Insulting the president” was a consistent red line — occasionally violated, but never forgotten — during Mubarak’s time. Guyer writes that: “The most significant change in Egyptian caricature since 2011 is the implicit permissibility of satirizing the president. Nevertheless, during President Mohamed Morsi’s year in office, the same penal code article maintained that “whoever insults the president… shall be imprisoned.”

Enforcement is not straightforward, and involves both legal and extra-legal attacks, intimidation from citizens and lawsuits filed by citizens and interest groups. And cartoonists often found a way around:

Throughout Morsi’s year, artists performed new acrobatic feats along the red lines. Operating within (and around) explicit and implicit regulations, each artist took his or her own approach toward challenging the rules of the game. This involved learning the new red lines and how to work with them, publishing controversial cartoons even if they crossed these lines, and finally, developing other media platforms for cartooning.

Certainly, it’s not over:

…just as Morsi’s cohort attempted to censor satire of religion, so too can we expect the new government to attempt to create new boundaries. Working around red lines, “trains the cartoonist to make up his mind in different ways so the cartoon becomes smarter,” said [Al Masry Al Youm cartoonist] Abdallah. “And it is also more interesting for the readers.”

And ultimately, Guyer writes, “the cartoonists themselves determine what is illustratable, and by extension the margins of acceptable speech.”

Not just for cartoons, but in wider spheres as well.