Is SpongeBob SquarePants the New Che Guevara?

By Jared Malsin

On a Friday afternoon this past June, a new wave of pro-democracy demonstrations roiled downtown Cairo. Protestors were angry that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, had advanced to the runoff in the country's historic presidential election.

In the midst of the turmoil, a young activist with black-rimmed glasses, his fist raised skyward, led the crowd in chants against the old regime. He was easy to spot, perched atop a comrade’s shoulders and wearing a bright yellow T-shirt emblazoned with the image of the beloved yellow undersea creature of animated children’s television, SpongeBob Squarepants.

SpongeBob is a familiar sight in Tahrir Square nowadays. The vendors in the square hawking Egyptian flags and shirts printed with revolutionary slogans almost always also sell SpongeBob-branded T-shirts. The casual visitor to the square in early 2013 might even wonder if SpongeBob has become, like the ubiquitous Che Guevara shirts or the spooky Guy Fawkes masks made popular by the film V for Vendetta, a bizarre transnational pop culture symbol of resistance.

Shereif Elkeshta, an Egyptian-American filmmaker who travels frequently between New York and Cairo, said he first noticed the bright yellow shirts during a visit to the square last May, over a year after the revolution. “Suddenly it was no longer about hurriya [freedom] ath-thawra [the revolution] or 25th of January, it just became T-shirts, and SpongeBob, maybe it’s just the New Yorker in me, but SpongeBob? Do these people even know what SpongeBob is?”

Elkeshta later cited the SpongeBob phenomenon in an essay about the incoherent state of politics in Egypt in an independent monthly paper called Midan Masr. He wrote, “Why isn’t he [SpongeBob] at least holding a Molotov cocktail? Or raising a fist?”

So is SpongeBob a revolutionary icon? You can almost see it. The shirts are bright yellow, giving them a visual pop appropriate for demonstrations. SpongeBob is an optimistic character who gained a substantial following in Egypt soon after it began airing in translation with the launch of Nickelodeon Arabia in 2008.

And on top of that, there’s the aspirational symbolism of the character as a common man, er, sponge, struggling to make his way in the world. Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger and activist who was arrested and beaten by Mubarak’s security forces, said he is a fan of SpongeBob because, “The character really is just a simple guy, a working guy, who is not a superhero like we used to have in cartoons and comics, and yet he is loved by his friends,” he said.

But Abbas, and every other Egyptian, will tell you that there is no political significance to the SpongeBob shirts. Ashraf Khalil, an Egyptian-American journalist and author of a book about the uprising claims that the SpongeBob shirts say a lot about how Tahrir square has changed in the past year. “The reason that SpongeBob shirts are sold in Tahrir is only indicative of the fact that apolitical vendors set up shop in Tahrir Square last year after the revolution selling anything they think they could sell,” says Khalil.

Since the early days of the rebellion, the square has been the center of a fierce confrontation with the authoritarian state. Young Egyptians fought and died by the hundreds to maintain the civilian occupation of the square during the winter 2011 uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak, fending off riot police and plainclothes thugs riding camels.

Shortly after the initial 18-day uprising, commerce reasserted itself. Street vendors, long kept in check by Mubarak’s police, set up shop in the square, beginning by selling flags and eventually banners and T-shirts stamped with revolutionary slogans. Even today, with Tahrir home to a protest camp against Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi, the T-shirt vendors can still be found.

And the shirts do sell, in part because of SpongeBob’s wild popularity in Egypt, which has coincidentally taken on a life of its own in the period since the revolution. The character has inspired dozens of Egyptian Facebook fan groups, including at least one nominating him for the presidency in last year’s landmark election, and one saccharine novelty Arabic pop song, “Ana SpongeBob” by the Egyptian singer Hamada Helal. The high-production-values music video, which to date has earned 5.7 million hits on YouTube, shows Helal, dressed in a SpongeBob costume, singing, “I am SpongeBob” at a children’s party.

Indeed, one need only walk a few blocks through downtown Cairo to witness the proliferation of SpongeBob items. Every few steps, you’ll stumble over sidewalk vendors selling SpongeBob toys and stickers, or shops selling pint-sized SpongeBob shirts and hats for children. Some of the clothes are imported from China, while others are made in Egypt’s domestic huge textile industry.

One vendor, Islam Muhammad Ibrahim, 24, who was selling clothes laid out on a sidewalk table, explained to me that the character is so popular that he prints his own SpongeBob stencils off the internet at home in Giza and prints the logos on children’s clothes. He showed me a white, child-size sweatshirt, stenciled with a blue logo reading “SpongeBop”. He sold ten of the shirts that day, he said.

SpongeBob mania also provoked the ire last year of a conservative Muslim commentator, Sheikh Nabil Al-Awadhi, who used a satellite TV show to condemn SpongeBob for allegedly encouraging young boys to dress and act effeminately.

So there is an indirect connection between SpongeBob and the revolution, in the sense that the uprising transformed Tahrir Square from a large, empty traffic circle, to a revolutionary stronghold, and eventually to a hub of informal commerce.

Elkeshta sees this as transformation of urban space: “Someone said to me, ‘the whole reason we had a revolution was really just because there’s no public parks,’ and I really like that. I kind of believe it. This was really just the people just reclaiming a little bit of pedestrian zone in one of the craziest cities.”

But Islam Muhammad Ibrahim, 24, who sells adult-size SpongeBob T-Shirts in a variety of colours in Tahrir, alongside shirts commemorating the revolution, sees his work as connected in an odd way to the uprising. The activists camped in the square are his “friends and brothers” he said, leaning over the metal fence that runs along the sidewalk to show me a bullet hole fired by the security forces. “A lot of people died here,” he said.

Sure SpongeBob has nothing to do with the revolution, he says, but he argues his other merchandise does, for example a shirt reading, “THE DAY WE CHANGED EGYPT: 25 JANUARY.” “We sell shirts so people will remember the revolution,” he said. And besides, “It’s better than selling only to tourists.”

But that does not make SpongeBob himself a political symbol. Like many others, activist blogger Wael Abbas suspects the ubiquity of the shirts has less to do with politics than economics. “It’s about things that are commercial, commercializing everything, commercialising the revolution,” he says.

Abbas wonders whether the T-shirts signal is a kind of apathy, a creeping post-revolutionary malaise. He argues that aside from “the commercial wave of selling the revolution, selling the posters and selling the pictures of the marches and all this kind of stuff, people are also not really interested in the revolution [anymore] because we are facing a reality now and we want to change.”

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