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In SpongeBob We Trust?

November 2, 2013

In Sponge We Trust

“Choose the one you trust more!” says this Imad Hajjaj cartoon.

“Choose the one you trust more!” says this Imad Hajjaj cartoon.

I love this cartoon. It has so many layers.

At the most basic level, this is a cartoon about the elections. “Who do you trust more?” The man is turning away from the local politician to the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants.

At another level, this is a cartoon about cell phones. The guy is a not actually voting; he’s taking a picture. The cartoonist is using this everyday mediating activity to indicate who this man would vote for.

It can do this because cell phones–with digital photographic and sharing capacities–have become so ubiquitous. The object in the man’s hand is represented by just a few pen strokes, with no detail, yet any reader in Egypt will immediately recognize what he is holding and what he is doing with it.

At still another level, this is a critical comment on Arab politics and elections. The untrustworthiness of candidates a theme that Mahjoob has dealt with in many cartoons (Imad Hajjaj signs his cartoons “Mahjoob”)

One of the classic discourses of Arab politics is to blame unhappy circumstances on the activities of outside forces that want to see the country suffer and fail. The old regime and the next regimes alike would blame problems on Israel, the U.S., Iran, even all of them working in tandem. Here it is SpongeBob, who IS an outsider, a cartoon that comes from, and hence indexes, the United States…but still more trustworthy (or perhaps just cuter?) than indigenous politicians.

Or is SpongeBob an outsider? At another level, this is a cartoon about SpongeBob, a character who is enormously popular in Egypt and the wider Middle East these days. Choosing SpongeBob over the local politician is a wry commentary on the quality of local politicians, sure, but it is also a commentary on SpongeBob.

SpongeBob is everywhere in the Middle East these days.  Don’t believe me? Check out the Tumblr website “SpongeBob on the Nile,” run by American students Andrew Leber and Elisabeth Jaquette, With the assistance of Egyptians, expatriates and travelers, it documents sightings of SpongeBob SquarePants in Egypt and to a lesser extent the wider region.

The website demonstrates the astonishing extent to which SpongeBob has been localized. Not only does he appear on the usual stuff–birthday cakes, t-shirts, stuffed toys, stickers, toys, and candy–but he shows up on revolutionary posters, Ramadan lanterns, and makes appearances at protests and demonstrations (and all sides seem to embrace him).

One of the key aspects of localization is the capacity for people in local contexts to transform the signifying logics of indexical signs, so that they no longer primarily signify their places of origin. For many children, having grown up with an Arabic SpongeBob, Spongebob is no more American than koshary.

If I were writing Connected In Cairo today, that is, if I were doing ethnographic study on children, class and consumption, I would be more interested in SpongeBob than in Pokemon.

The cartoon as well calls into question the larger ontological choices faced by Egyptian citizens in a post-revolutionary Egypt. In revolting against the status quo to pursue the chimera of democracy, of a better government, one more responsive to the needs and desires of the working and middle classes, are Egyptians just embracing the fantasies the global media industry seeks to sell (in which case SpongeBob stands for the whole global neoliberal economic apparatus that has been so unsuccessful at providing almode of livelihood for most Egyptians over the past decades)?

The revolutionary graffiti artist who goes by the pseudonym El Teneen said (admittedly tongue-in-cheek) in an interview 9 July in Al Ahram On-line that SpongeBob was perhaps the best possible choice for Minister of Culture:

when asked about who would be capable of solving the ministry of culture versus Egypt’s culture equation, El Teneen… mentions cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants as the only character that might take advantage of “the full fledged revival of populist sentiment in the Egyptian psyche, has the capacity to cleansing [Egypt’s] culture of all Islamist influence and can bring Egyptian society back its cultural purity while upholding its traditional morals.”

There may be a wry dig at the Egyptian youth revolution here as well. The father is turning his back on the local politico for SpongeBob, but he is doing so in response to his son’s enthusiasm. This was a youth revolution; the cartoon reminds us that the Facebook generation is also the SpongeBob generation. Do they really have the experience to lead us? Can a generation so attuned to global flows of culture really address the unique local issues that threaten the fabric of Egyptian society, from religious sectarianism to economic collapse to the collapse of social stability and security in everyday life?

And perhaps, at the broadest level, the cartoon can be glossed as being about the most fundamental problem of electoral politics in post-Mubarak Egypt: is there any politician who can actually be trusted to lead the country forward so that is truly becomes a land of bread, freedom, and social justice? Or is such a leader just a fantasy, like SpongeBob SquarePants?

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