Skewering dictators: Laugh them out of power; Political cartoons in the Arab world are getting punchier

Skewering dictators: Laugh them out of power; Political cartoons in the Arab world are getting punchier

Aug 31st 2013 | BEIRUT |From the print edition

20130831_IRP003_0 pic1_doaa_eladl

This sketch by Doaa Eladl, a prominent female Egyptian, is relevant again today since it refers to the military’s strong influence over the country’s politics. The caption (top right) says “The next president”.

IN MANY Middle Eastern states, cartoons are powerful weapons of subversion. In the past the men who drew them were often coy in the face of censorship: a mocking depiction of a king on a jewelled throne holding his nose as he surveyed his citizens might be acceptable, but not more obviously humiliating depictions of the monarch. Better to focus on foreign themes like America’s support for Israel. Yet Arab cartoonists have been getting more daring. In Egypt they spent a year sending up their embattled president, Muhammad Morsi, before he was ousted. Syrian opposition newspapers show President Bashar Assad bathed in blood.Islam’s emphasis on the written word at the expense of visual depiction (it is forbidden to draw the Prophet Muhammad) meant that cartoons, long popular in Europe, came late to the Muslim world. They became popular in the Ottoman empire in the mid-19th century. Yacoub Sanou, a Syrian Jew, started publishing cartoons in Egypt in 1877. Several decades later others followed suit in what are now Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Cartoonists in these and neighbouring countries claim they helped to spark the Arab spring. Ali Ferzat, a Syrian caricaturist, was critical of his leaders long before protests broke out in 2011. Now less constrained, many others are joining in. Jonathan Guyer, a Cairo-based scholar researching cartoons, talks of a new golden age. He says, “I barely see stupid gags or anti-Semitic tropes now.” Young cartoonists incorporate popular culture into their work, attracting new audiences. Khalid al-Baih, a Sudanese cartoonist based in Qatar, has seen his sketches pop up in Beirut and Cairo.

The authorities still try to fight back. In 2011 Mr Ferzat was beaten up in Damascus after drawing Mr Assad trying to hitch a lift from Libya’s then-dictator, Muammar Qaddafi. Mocking Morocco’s king in a picture can still land you behind bars. Several cartoonists were sued earlier this year for making fun of Mr Morsi. “But our work is being taken more seriously by the public,” says Andeel, the pen-name of a cartoonist at al-Masry al-Youm, a leading Egyptian newspaper.

One taboo has yet to be broken: making fun of religion, as opposed to clerics and Islamist politicians. And few Gulf rulers have had their noses tweaked by local cartoonists, rather than those who live safely abroad. When that happens, they may start twitching.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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