If Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi needs pointers in how to deal with the wildly popular TV satirist Bassem Youssef — who was charged last week with insulting the President and mocking Islam — he might find them in a nearby North African country: Algeria. There, the autocratic regime of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his powerful military generals have suffered years of vicious skewering by one of the region’s best-known cartoonists, Ali Dilem. But after countless attempts at shutting down Dilem’s work, Algeria’s government seems to have come to the conclusion that Dilem cannot be halted, or at least, that stopping him would be too damaging for the country’s image. “Even the judges know that it is not a good time for them to go after me,” Dilem says. He says the government’s tacit rule now is: “You can talk, you can shout, so long as you don’t risk the country’s stability.”
For Dilem, 45, it is a delicate dance. He has been prosecuted at least 50 times over the past 11 years for insulting Algeria’s leaders — an offense that came into law in 2001, when Bouteflika signed the so-called Dilem amendment, allowing for sentences of up to 12 months in jail and 250,000 dinars ($3,177) fines for journalists who insult the President and military generals. Since those insults are the core of Dilem’s cartoons, he has been charged repeatedly under the provision. His sentences are invariably reduced on appeal, and Dilem has so far not been jailed, despite his merciless put-downs of the country’s most powerful figures. The Algerian newspaper Liberté, which publishes his work, pays his legal fees. Asked how many times he has been convicted, Dilems laughs. “That’s an easy question,” he says. “I have never won a case.”
Dilem’s cartoons also draw a wide audience online, with their depictions of pumped-up dictators and corrupt generals resonating strongly in the rest of the Middle East. No one’s feelings, no matter how powerful the person, are spared in his drawings. Bouteflika is shown as a diminutive statue on a giant pedestal — a President whose power rests on pomp and ceremony, rather than true leadership. The country’s intelligence chief General Mohamed Mediène, or Toufik as he’s commonly known, who is rarely seen in public and whom Algerians dare not criticize, is depicted as a rotund, wild-eyed figure with stubble and an empty dog’s bowl at his feet with the word people written on it. During one trial, the judge demanded to know why General Mediène appeared to be “fat and ugly,” Dilem says. “I told him, ‘Believe me, if I meet a slim, handsome general, I will draw him too. But every general in Algeria is fat and ugly, with a mustache.’”
Hauled into police stations and before judges regularly, Dilem’s ongoing legal travails have been a regular feature of his life for years; he addresses his lawyer, Ali Meziane, simply as “le misérable.” And yet, about two years ago, just as the Arab Spring was beginning to erupt, Algeria’s government seemed to shift its tough stance against Dilem, and the prosecutions grew far less frequent. Dilem’s last trial was in early 2012. Meziane says the government concluded that the trials were making Algeria look bad, and indeed, that they were counterproductive, since they had hugely expanded Dilem’s popularity — a sure lesson for Egypt’s rulers as they go after Youssef. “It is evident that the government is deliberately not intervening,” Meziane said by phone from Algiers. “The government is trying to give some freedom of expression,” he says. “That is solely for them to take care of the image of the country.”
Dilem says he began cartooning almost by accident when, at 21, a newspaper editor approached him saying they had heard he had been secretly sketching cartoons of then President Chadli Bendjedid as a donkey; Dilem had made the drawings for friends, he says. “I was really scared, I didn’t think I was any good,” he says. “So I drew the President with a tennis racket saying, ‘I love this racket’ — a pun on corruption. He was hired and has not stopped drawing since, despite years of war and intense crackdowns on the press.
Over the years, Dilem has faced threats not only from the regime, but from conservative Islamists too; he went into hiding through much of the 1990s, during Algeria’s devastating civil war between the military and hard-line Islamic groups, which killed about 200,000 people. In recent years, he has spent periods in Paris, and during times when he has felt in danger, he has hidden for months — even from his mother — within the city of Algiers itself.
In countless cartoons, Dilem has savaged Islamic leaders for their attitudes, and in several has fingered men with long beards as being the biggest risk to the Middle East. Yet he says he would never lampoon the Prophet Muhammad, fearing that there could be violent repercussions, as happened when a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet in 2005, setting off a wave of attacks across the Muslim world. “I am working in a very unstable country, and I know that there is a threat on my head,” he says. “Is it really worth it? To my mind, this is not a matter of courage when I hurt the feelings of 90% of Algerians.”
As for the current prosecution in Egypt of Youssef, Dilem says he can understand the government’s tough response to the satirist’s TV show, which lampoons Morsi and other powerful figures. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that Egypt’s new regime reacted the way it did,” Dilem says. “In our tradition, no one makes fun of big, powerful people.” Nonetheless, he believes Egypt’s leaders will have to get used to being ridiculed, now that Youssef has opened the way for a new form of political satire. “Since it is the first time, the regime will really panic,” he says. “But then, others will follow.”