The Jon Stewart of Egypt, Bassem Youssef, is used to making headlines in Egypt for his popular late-night show. But in the past week the satirist has been in papers around the world for taking his criticism of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi too far. An Islamist lawyer has brought charges against Youssef for mocking the Egyptian president—describing him with epithets like pharaoh, or “SuperMorsi”—and he is now under investigation for “undermining” Morsi’s standing. In the episode in question, Youssef holds a red furry pillow stamped with Morsi’s likeness and speaks to it soothingly. “The president understands us,” says Youssef. “He understands us better than we understand ourselves.”
The Obama Administration has voiced its concerns over the legal action, as have other democracy advocates, seeing this, as well as a complaint that Morsi filed against the newspaper Al-Masry al-Youm, as a test case for the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. “[W]e continue to urge the Egyptian Government to respect freedom of expression,” said a State Department spokesperson, “which is a universal right as one of the harbingers of the kind of country they want to have going forward.”
Morsi insists he has nothing to do with the Youssef investigation. His office explained that the complaints against the TV host are “mainly individual initiatives” brought “by independent lawyers.” And indeed the lawyer who has instigated the proceedings is not a government employee. The peculiar reality of Egypt’s free-wheeling judicial system is that anyone can bring a case to court, regardless of how ludicrous the charges. Last year, the famous Egyptian actor Adel Imam was acquitted of blasphemy charges brought against him by an Islamist lawyer who objected to several roles in which Imam made fun of Islamists.
Since embarking on his media career in March 2011, in response to the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the 38-year-old Youssef has gone after the same crew. A cardiothoracic surgeon who still practices medicine when he is not filming his show, Youssef has won a huge audience that would have been unthinkable under the old regime, which frequently censored satirists, critics, and writers. And it wasn’t just Mubarak: The general tendency in Egypt, dating back almost 100 years, has been to freeze debates concerning major social issues, particularly the role of Islam. What the rise of Bassem Youssef indicates is certainly not that the Muslim Brotherhood is more tolerant, but rather that the government may no longer be able to stifle a debate that has long been in the making.
The question now is whether the consciousness raised by Youssef and his show can galvanize a political movement—or at least a debate about the future of an Egypt for all its citizens.
In the wake of Mubarak’s downfall and the Brotherhood’s ascent to power, Egyptian TV has seen a boom in Islamist preachers and activists. The paradox is that Youssef has also benefited from the rise of the Islamists. The audience for Youssef’s show, Al Bernameg (The Program), is drawn from an opposition featuring secularists, liberals, Coptic Christians, and even observant Muslims who just don’t want Islamists telling them how to live their lives. The show was picked up by the Egyptian satellite station ONTV in 2011 during Ramadan and this past November moved to CBC, which airs the two-hour-long program on Friday nights. The segments are shot two days in advance on a Cairo stage in front of a live audience—exactly the way American late-night hosts, like Jay Leno and David Letterman, do it. Youssef has consciously modeled his screen persona on Jon Stewart, who invited the English-speaking Youssef to appear on The Daily Show in June.
Mahmoud Salem, a prominent democracy activist who has been blogging for almost a decade under the name Egyptian Sandmonkey, also relies on thick doses of satire to make his political points, typically aimed at the pious president and his coterie of devout officials. But for all of Salem’s success—blogging in English has won him a large audience around the world, including the United States and Israel—he can’t help but be a little envious of some of Bassem Youssef’s triumphs. “He’s driven some of these Salafis out of politics,” Salem told me on the phone from Cairo.
Egyptians are known throughout the Middle East for their sense of humor—an instrument frequently directed at themselves, their society, and their own rulers. So, in a sense Youssef is just availing himself of “the great material that Morsi and the rest provide,” according to Salem. The problem, Salem added, is that “these new rulers are not used to being satirized like this and believe that it damages their prestige.”
Moreover, insofar as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists believe that they’re on a divine mission to remake Egyptian society after the image of the almighty, they are apt to see criticism of them as tantamount to insulting God. In a recent episode, Youssef took up the challenge directly, apologizing to his audience for getting serious and then launching an attack against those he calls “merchants of religion.” “Don’t be surprised if you see the people who are supposed to be the religious ones cursing and bullying people,” Youssef said in his monologue. “They look at us not as Muslims and Christians, no. As infidels, hypocrites, enemies of religion, enemies of the lord. So, we deserve to be cursed and humiliated, even if it goes as far as beating and torture and maybe after that, God forbid, killing.”
There are a number of Egyptian intellectuals and writers over the years who have taken on the religious establishment and have paid dearly for it—like the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist militant, and the journalist Farag Foda, murdered by another. But all of these figures were outliers, either extremely courageous or crazy, or a combination of the two. Youssef is highly popular and admired by a broad cross-section of Egyptian society, not just the intellectual class.
Before Youssef, Egyptian elites didn’t realize that their own sensibilities—their distrust of religious authorities and their desire to speak their minds—were shared by many outside of their narrow social and educational strata. Westernized elites “were long accustomed to making a deal with the ruling powers,” said Amr Bargisi, a senior partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. “This elite was close to the state and chose not to partake in fights with society or debates that could stir up anti-elite feelings, like debates over religion.” That is, they hid behind the regime, which offered a certain amount of protection, so long as they kept their mouths shut. That changed when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power. “The elites recognized that this government was no longer sympathetic to them,” Bargisi added.
Ultimately, the Bassem Youssef phenomenon is bigger than one man. It’s about that large and, thanks to Youssef, increasingly vocal segment of urbanized Egyptian society that feels the Islamists do not represent them or their vision of Egypt. “Now you see people arguing in streets,” Bargisi said. “ ‘We don’t want sharia law,’ they say. Bassem Youssef is not necessarily significant in himself, but he is because of what he stands for and the people now following him.”
“For a long time I’ve been wondering whether or not I still belong in Egypt,” Bargisi told me. “Now I sit in a café surrounded by other people watching Bassem Youssef and I’m hopeful, optimistic for the first time in years. I feel this is my country.”
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).