Egypt subsidises the “Dictatorship for Beginners” manual…
Originally published in Foreign Policy: Transitions.
RHS: “The Great Bahgatos is on the People’s hearts” LHS: “Bahgatia’s Statue of Liberty” – “safety matches” – “The Law”
My father recently bought a new copy of an old book. We couldn’t buy it earlier because it was virtually impossible to get one when Hosni Mubarak was president. You’ll understand why when you hear the title: Dictatorship for Beginners: Bahgatos, President of Greater Bahgatia. (You can see a copy here — in Arabic, but you don’t have to understand the text to enjoy it).
It’s a slim comic book, a pearl of Arab political satire, and the brainchild of caricaturist extraordinaire Bahgat Osman. Because it was banned for decades, I was recently surprised and delighted to find the book suddenly available on the Egyptian market — and subsidized by the Egyptian government at that.
Let me explain.
Bahgatos, the book’s protagonist, is the quintessential Arab dictator, and almost every Arab citizen (and beyond) will see parts of his or her ruler in him.
Clad in a military uniform festooned with bottle-cap medals, and surrounded by walls covered with portraits of his august ancestors (i.e., thieves and robbers), Bahgatos goes about his daily life, consolidating his dictatorship while enjoying the praise of his minions.
The book takes us through the life and practice of a tyrant, poking fun at Bahgatos’ corruption, violence, idiocy, and hypocrisy, all through simple, amusing, and cringe-inducing drawings. Here are a few of my favorite bits: “Bahgatos takes a bath,” titles the government newspaper — and, then for good measure, follows up with “repercussions of Bahgatos’ bath in world capitals.” In another, he worships a dollar bill. In a third, one of his subjects, hands bound and clothes tattered, lies at his feet; in the adjacent panel, Bahgatos kneels at the feet of the U.S. ambassador. (In the image shown above, the statue of liberty is burning a book called “law.” Bahgatos, on the right, is depicted seated on two of his subjects, above a caption reading “The Great Bahgatos, deeply settled in the hearts of the public.”)
Bahgatia’s minister of youth, we also learn, is a baby — the dictator’s son. Bahgatos decapitates a pen, bribes foreign journalists singing his praises, has a tailor for a lawmaker, and three faceless “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” counselors. My favorite picture depicts a Bahgatian ballot with three options: “yes,” “two yeses,” and “multiple yeses.” The comics go on for 60 pages that I wish I could reproduce here.
Bahgat Osman (or simply “Bahgat,” as he always signed his work) depicted his cartoon potentate with his own physical traits in order to avoid any similarities with existing dictators and hoping that this would give him a wider margin of freedom. The ruler took offense anyway. Bahgat was forced to leave Egypt to Kuwait in the 1970s after a spat with then-President Anwar El Sadat, only to return in the early 1980s, when he dedicated himself to his other passion, children’s books and illustrations. From then on he eschewed all confrontation with the state. He quietly passed away in 2001.
A Lebanese publishing house published his Bahgatos booklet in 1989, but it was impossible to find in Cairo’s libraries for the past two decades. New generations of readers were introduced to Bahgatos’ adventures via the Internet. Friends downloaded copies of the PDF from free hosting sites and sent it to each other. But now Dictatorship for Beginners is on sale across the nation, available even from newspaper vendors for the modest price of two Egyptian pounds (33 cents US).
The book is one of many cheap books on sale every summer, the product of a subsidized publishing scheme administered by the “General Egyptian Book Organization” called “Reading for All.” Each year GEBO sells hundreds of different titles at minimal prices. Until 2010, every single book published carried on its back cover the photo of the project’s patron, Suzanne Mubarak. It is a truly amazing project, one which helped many Egyptians families over the past two decades to build an affordable home library that includes poetry, literature, philosophy, and other genres. Over the years I bought dozens of titles myself, from Biram El-Tounsi to Naguib Mahfouz and Kant, on topics ranging from genetics to politics. These subsidized books have probably helped shape the cultural consciousness of a generation of Egyptians.
As I browsed through the Bahgatos booklet, I found myself wondering why this book was unbanned, and why the people in charge of selecting titles for this year’s campaign chose it. It’s rather hard to escape the irony that the work is now enjoying broad exposure thanks, in part, to Ms. Mubarak, the wife of our own recent Bahgatos.
Did someone at GEBO want the Egyptian public to laugh at their previous military dictator? Did they see this as a way to differentiate the new civilian president from his predecessors? Or was this supposed to be a signal from the state about freedom of expression? If so, the latter will be hard case to prove. On the job for only a few weeks, Mohamed Morsi has quickly shown himself to be no more tolerant of the media than his predecessor. A look at the government mouthpiece Al-Ahramand other state-owned newspapers (not to mention the Muslim Brotherhood’s daily pamphlet “Justice and Freedom,” named after the Brotherhood’s political party) shows that their editors are obediently reporting Morsi’s every move and showering him with praise.
A little like Bahgatos, one might say.