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Spongebob Squarepants: Egypt’s Revolutionary New Symbol
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.