Comedy as revolution: Bassem Youssef and the rise and fall of Egyptian satire

The rise of Bassem Youssef from a thirty-seven year old cardiothoracic surgeon to one of the most popular television personalities in Egypt within a matter of months reflects his image as the voice of the 2011 Egyptian revolution post-Mubarak (Gladstone). The question, however, was why Youssef was considered such a danger to the Egyptian government, despite an outpouring of public support from them. An understanding of the danger that Youssef posed to parties like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, and his subsequent arrest and the cancellation of Al Bernameg, his television program, can be had from an understanding of the content of his television episodes, his critical commentary on Egyptian media and politics, and a brief history of satire in Egypt.  Though the host of the first satirical television program in Egypt’s history, Youssef is far from the first example of Egyptian political humor. As Mohamed Helmy and Sabine Frerichs explain in their article “Stripping the Boss: The Powerful Role of Humor in the Egyptian Revolution 2011,” the classic colloquial Egyptian poetry, or zajal, has been commonly used in critical commentary on the government. Once popular during the government of Khedive Ismail and again during the 1952 revolution, the style has re-appeared during the 2011 revolution, especially in the protests of Tahrir square (Helmy & Frerichs 357). The main element of this art form is its colloquial quality, meant to be accessible to all protestors in the square, regardless of religion or socioeconomic status. Despite the efforts of various dictatorships, including those of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, to severely restrict freedom of speech, the zajal resurged in the square in the form of songs and chants. As a physician treating the wounded in Tahrir Square during the protests of 2011, Youssef was profoundly affected by what he saw. As the satirist reflects in an interview with Time magazine correspondent Robin Wright of his time spent treating the injured in the square and the effect that it had upon him, “the [revolution] triggered the idea to do a show exposing the hypocrisy that was happening…so I became a comedian overnight” (Youssef).

Beginning on March 8, 2011 with a first episode posted to YouTube and filmed in a spare room in Youssef’s apartment mocking the government’s news coverage of the Tahrir Square uprising, the show’s popularity skyrocketed to over a million YouTube views. After the ousting of Mubarak, Youssef gained a spot on national television and continued with his equal-opportunity satire, mocking everything from each of the thirteen presidential candidates to President Morsi’s poor English (Wright). The significance of these spoofs, however, cannot be understated. As Wright reflects, “Youssef’s show also reflects the cultural change that has been as important as political change in the Middle East’s transformation.” Post-1952 revolution, freedom of expression took a turn for the worst when political magazines were no longer tolerated. For the first time in 2011, Egyptians took to their television sets and computers to listen to Youssef and his direct and honest criticism of current events. Commenting on the importance of satire during this time period in an interview, Youssef states, “this is the best time to have a political satire program in Egypt. We are the drama queen of the world with everything that’s happening…Comic satire is the best way to comment on everything” (Youssef & Amanpour).  Though widely popular and considered by many to be the voice of the revolution and a symbol of post-dictatorial cultural change, the election of Mohamed Morsi and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood threatened the existence of Youssef’s program and the future of political satire in Egyptian television.

Upon Youssef’s arrest by the authorities in March of 2013, he was subjected to a five-hour investigation and forced to watch and respond to various clips of his show. Youssef’s commentary, which would have been justified under the First Amendment in the United States, was being investigated by officials as contempt toward Islam and criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. In one clip that was considered particularly provocative by the Morsi regime, Youssef criticizes one of Morsi’s interviews in which he declares that he consults with everyone when he makes decisions. Youssef mocks the president, sarcastically responding, “right, the president is the one responsible. He consults with everyone. Is everyone Khairat and Badie, or the entire Guidance office?” (Youssef). This direct attack on the corruption of Morsi’s regime reflects Youssef’s opinion that although democratically elected, Morsi does not represent the ideals of many Egyptian citizens. These attacks quickly landed Youssef an arrest warrant and questioning by the Muslim Brotherhood, but stand to show the importance of humor and satire in the revolution.

Support for Youssef was not just restricted to Egypt and the Middle East, but came from around the world. Having modeled his own television program off of those of American satirists, such as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, he received an outpouring of support from the United States (Hassan). Addressing Morsi during a segment relating to the call for the arrest of Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart asks, “what are you worried about, Mr. President? The power of satire to overthrow the status quo? I’ve been doing this for fifteen years…And just so you know there has been a grand total of zero toppled governments we’ve brought about during that time” (Stewart).  In referring to Youssef as a “friend” and a “brother,” Stewart signifies the importance of free speech across the world, and the service that Youssef does for those who may not agree with the ruling regime and government run television and media programs (Stewart).

With the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian revolution of 2011, Bassem Youssef’s television program, Al Bernameg,offered a fresh and critical perspective on Egyptian politics and culture that had not been seen since the 1952 revolution, which imposed strict laws of censorship on the Egyptian public. Appealing to Egyptians of all faiths and across the socioeconomic spectrum, Youssef looked to comment on the state of affairs in his own country in a way that state-run news outlets did not. Reflecting on the unique quality of his program, Youssef says, “I actually believe that there is a middle ground between everybody and they can meet…I direct my criticism for the extreme of each one of them” (Hassan). As an equal opportunity critic and cunning television personality, Youssef and the rise and fall of Al Bernameg reflects the changing political and cultural landscape of Egypt and offers insight into the role of free speech across the world.

 

Works Cited

Hassan, Abdalla F. “Surgeon Using Parody to Dissect the News in Egypt.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/28/world/middleeast/28iht-M28C-EGYPT-SHOW.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&>.

Helmy, Mohamed M., and Sabine Frerichs. “Stripping the Boss: The Powerful Role of Humor in the Egyptian Revolution 2011.” Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science 47.4 (2013): 450-81. Web. 13 Oct. 2014. <http://download.springer.com/static/pdf/452/art%253A10.1007%252Fs12124-013-9239-x.pdf?auth66=1413594837_a5751667b1ae187f6f9f277dc6dea6f0&ext=.pdf>.

Stewart, Jon. “The Daily Show: Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, and Bassem Youssef.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 Apr. 2013. Web. 15 Oct. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LyDOAQNsTrI>.

Wright, Robin. “No Laughing Matter | TIME.com.” No Laughing Matter. TIME Magazine, 3 Apr. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <http://world.time.com/2013/04/03/no-laughing-matter/>.

Youssef, Bassem, and Christiane Amanpour1. “Christiane Amanpour with Bassem Youssef 01/04/13: CNN.” YouTube. YouTube, 1 Apr. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoVH5oXV7WU>.

Youssef, Bassem. “2البرنامج – عندما ياتي الخطاب – الحلقة 15 – الجزء.” YouTube. YouTube, 1 Mar. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2014. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6M0qc4uVp4M>.