Rob Tornoe, 3/3/2011 [Archive]

Mubarak Drawn Out of Power by Egyptian Cartoonist

Editor's Note: There are hi-res versions of Arafa's cartoons and a mugshot of Arafa available below or in our download site for you to run along with this column.

Mubarak Drawn Out of Power by Egyptian Cartoonist

By Rob Tornoe

As Egyptians protested by the thousands in the streets of Cairo in the weeks leading up to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak, the government attempted to respond by cracking down on the media and shutting down the nation's internet.

But Mubarak should have known that the shutdown wouldn't prevent top Egyptian cartoonist Sherif Arafa from drawing about the corrupt leadership trying to retain power. After all, the Ancient Egyptians were the first civilization in history to have editorial cartoons, so it's fitting that cartoons would come into play in the historic overthrow of Mubarak's government.

Arafa is an interesting guy.A dentist by trade, he has drawn cartoons for 10 years at the state-run Rosa Elyoussef magazine in Egypt, struggling daily to give voice to criticism of the regime without triggering the censors in a country where free speech is too often trampled.

In a way, Arafa approaches cartooning the same way he would if someone came to his dental office with a sore tooth.

'I work as a cartoonist to spot the defects and criticize the wrong things I see,' Arafa explains. 'I try to say anything I want, everything I want and diagnosis the problem, because it's the first step to treat the disease of this nation.'

But even with all the barriers placed upon his creative freedom and the dangers he faces as a government critic, he wouldn't want to draw anywhere else.

'Cartooning in Egypt is interesting and joyful,' Arafa said. 'I used to get tens of cartoon ideas just by driving to work every day. Everything is sarcastic. Official speeches are saying the opposite of what you see around. When you have a vision for a better future, you'll have a great motive to criticize everything the government did.'

Arafa struggled daily with the editor-in-chief of Rosa Elyoussef newspaper, who was so close to Mubarak and his son that the Egyptian President selected him to be a member of Parliament.

Arafa was not permitted to draw cartoons about specific politicians, such as President Mubarak, or to criticize religion. As a way around that, Arafa created a character called 'The Responsible' that he featured in his cartoons, enabling him to say what he wanted without the risk of upsetting government censors.

'I draw him differently every time so he can have the physical characteristics and age of the top officials I want to criticize,' Sherif says. 'My readers understand whom I mean by the context of the cartoon.'

In fact, Arafa wasn't able to draw a cartoon depicting Mubarak until the Egyptian President stepped down from power.

'It was impossible to draw him in person back then,' Arafa explains. 'Very dangerous.'

Freedom of the press has been a struggle in Egypt, with the government controlling messaging through a state-run media enterprise.A number of opposition newspapers have been allowed in recent years, but none have been so bold as to print a caricature of Mubarak. According to Arafa, fellow Egyptian cartoonist Essam Hanafy was arrested for criticizing a minister, and opposition writer Abdel Haleem Kandeel was kidnapped, tortured and thrown naked onto a desert highway in the middle of the night.

As the protest heightened in Egypt, Mubarak unleashed an attack on international media covering the demonstrations in the street. His supporters assaulted reporters and security forces obstructed and detained journalists in an effort to stymie coverage of the unrest that eventually brought down his government.

'Egypt had more press freedom compared to any other country in the region,' according to Arafa. 'But if you were a reformist, had a clear vision and people that loved you, you were banned from the national media.'

Arafa says, now that Mubarak is out, he's noticing changes on the country's national media that make him hopeful about the future of press freedoms in Egypt.

'I'm noticing the return of respected experts who were banned from appearing on Egyptian TV, like Nobel Prize winners Dr. Mohammed El Baradei and Dr. Ahmed Zwail,' Arafa says. 'TV and newspapers have suddenly become respectful.'

For now, Arafa will continue producing his sharply-constructed cartoons, and understands the importance of his role as a watchdog of the government and a defender of his country's people.

'The difference between cartooning and dentistry is that thousands of people see your cartoon, but as a dentist, only you can see how great the cavity preparation you made is before you put the restoration on it.'


Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine, and edits the satirical humor magazine Delaware Punchline. He can be reached at

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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