Editorial cartoonists may take their ability to freely respond to events in their own country for granted. For Egyptian cartoonist Sherif Arafa, his most scathing work was drawn only for his own amusement, then locked in a drawer where even his editor couldn't see it. For years, Arafa worked at Rosalussef, a state-run paper in Egypt, where he carefully butted up against the line of acceptable criticism--a line that once crossed has had grave consequences for journalists and opposition members in Egypt.
Arafa is accomplished in a number of fields. He's a dentist as well as a popular author and motivational speaker that has lectured around the Arab world. For the last six months he has been employed as a staff cartoonist in the United Arab Emirates, where he is currently living. I interviewed Sherif about the uprising in Egypt, the censorship he faced there, and what he hopes will come from the revolution.
Matt Bors: You were prohibited from drawing the former President of Egypt your entire career. On February 14 we were happy to publish your first cartoon depicting him. Did you ever think you would be able to draw Hosni Mubarak?
Sherif Arafa: It was impossible to cartoon Mubarak in my newspaper. But I made many cartoons about Mubarak that I kept in a locked drawer! To be honest, I didn't think I could publish them before Mubarak's death. I expected this revolution to happen when his son tried to take his position. The funny thing is, every year I make a cartoon called "The New Year Wishes" where I draw impossible things happening, like Israel declaring they will build settlements to give to Palestinians or Bin Laden apologizing to American and offering to build another Twin Towers. This year I was drawing another impossible thing, a book cover with a title "I Was The President by Hosni Mubarak." This was joke month ago! I didn't even finish this cartoon because it was too dangerous.
Bors: Until now you have had to criticize Mubarak in a roundabout way. Explain a little about "The Responsible" character you created to address the regime. In using that character were there still times where ideas were shot down by your editors?
Arafa: This character (the responsible, the official--same word in Arabic) refers directly to Mubarak. You can see this in his physical characteristics and age, and the context of the cartoon. Sometimes I made him play other roles, such as minister or officer, just to defend myself if something happened. Of course, I couldn't publish all the cartoons because sometimes it was so clear that I meant Mubarak. They became more sensitive to my cartoons when a top official (I don't know who) complained about them.
Bors: In your previous interview with VJ Movement, you were asked what would happen if you depicted Mubarak and your answer, "no comment," spoke volumes. Can you tell us now what would have happened to you?
Arafa: The Egyptian cartoonist Essam Hanafy has been arrested because he criticized a minister. The oppositions writer Abdel Haleem Kandeel was kidnapped, tortured and thrown naked at night on a desert highway. You could be fired, arrested on false charges, prevented from appearing on TV (remember I'm a motivational speaker as well!) or exhausted through fines until you to close your business--and don't forget the emergency law that allowed Mubarak to arrest anyone at anytime without a reason. All of these "options" crossed my mind when Abigail asked this question.
Bors: The military is in charge of the government for the time being. They say that within the next six months they will lift the emergency law that has been in place for 30 years and set up multi-party elections. Do you trust them to transition Egypt the way the protest movement wants? How would you like to see a new government set up?
Arafa: We trust the military, Matt. The protesters cheered up when they saw the military coming on the streets. may be it's something in our collective unconscious, that we know that the Egyptian military will never harm people because it's one of their highest values. I believe that the military really intend to set free elections and reforms. But the problem is the remnants of the regime who are planning to make a counter-revolution to save their authority. The next government should be civil and democratic. I don't think Egyptians will ever support a theocratic state. The only reason people were supporting The Muslim Brotherhood was that Mubarak was cruelly suppressed them, which made people sympathize since they were the only 'real' opposition against Mubarak. They have declared they want a civil state as well. For me, I will wait to see who has a better plan to vote for, although I hope the Noble prize winners Dr. El-Baradei and Dr. Ahmed Zewail run in the next elections.
Arafa: I prefer to call it The Egyptian revolution. In dictatorships, people create an informal society, meaning that when there is no real parliament or real media, people tend to create their own leaders and their own media. We have jokes about corrupted top officials--everyone knows these jokes! You don't say them in media, but they became part of the pop culture against the regime's will. So people talk and tell each other what they cannot say in media by using Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo! groups, mailing lists, or any other way that let people communicate and think freely together.
Bors: You mentioned working as an inspirational speaker (in addition to being a dentist). What do you focus on? Is there any link between motivating people in that regard and how you view the purpose of your political cartoons?
Arafa: I'm not practicing dentistry now for time management reasons. It's difficult to work as a cartoonist and self-development specialist at the same time. As a cartoonist you focus on criticism and making fun of the problem, but as a self development author you have to be rational and give solutions. Completely different mentality! But I've made use of it. When I published a theory called Emotions Control System® I used editorial cartoons and caricature to explain part of it. I use cartoons in my lectures and a sense of humor in my book. For instance, some of my books titles are Why People Are Stupid and Get Rid Of Your Mind!
Bors: Wait--getting rid of your mind sounds like a bad thing.
Arafa: No, Matt, believe me it's not. Scientifically, our minds are messed up! Human cognition is primitive and can be deceived or misled easily. Our subconscious mind is playing tricks on us all the time. The best way is to get rid of your mind and follow the instructions to get you a brand new one! Of course I don't mean it literally, but it's my way of simplifying the boring scientific theories.
Bors: Were there any cartoons on the uprising in Egypt--from Egyptians or your colleagues around the world--that stick in your mind as being particularly inspiring or powerful?
Arafa: The cartoonists on Cartoon Movement did a pretty good job and I thank them so much for being excited about democracy in Egypt. I love the Egyptian cartoonist Amro Selim because he directly makes fun of everyone. He works at a private newspaper so he has more freedom to draw what he wants. He was so funny that one of his cartoons became a topic of discussion in the fake parliament to find the best way to punish him. Fortunately, the parliament was shut down after the revolution! But I always get surprised by the Brazilian cartoonist Carlos Latuff. He was drawing a very local and intimate cartoons about Egypt. Some of them are hard to understand if you are not Egyptian. He was supporting the revolution even before it started! I don't know how he was so passionate about the local Egyptian details. If he is reading this, I want to tell him: Good job!
Bors: In recent months you took a staff job at a paper in the United Arab Emirates so you weren't in Cairo during the uprising. Now that Mubarak is out, would you like return home and cartoon there?
Arafa: I cried in my office after calling my friend in Tahrir square! I wished I was there, but I was the only Egyptian cartoonist who has internet when Mubarak cut it in Egypt. So I used it to publish my cartoons to get worldwide attention against him. I wasn't sure if it was safe to visit Egypt anymore because of my cartoons. But now, I'm planning to visit Egypt frequently for my lectures and book signings. Now I want to do my best for my beloved country, whether I'm living in it or not.