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Jun / Jul 2013
Discomforting the Ignorant

Writer: Patrick Kingsley / the interview people

Thirty-eight year-old Egyptian heart surgeon and avowed Jon Stewart fan Bassem Youssef explains how the 2011 Cairo uprising galvanised him to speak out and poke fun at his country’s politics.


Early last month, a heart surgeon gave a talk at the American University in Cairo. As talks by cardiac specialists go, it was very well received. At the end, the students mobbed him – turning what should have been a brisk stroll to the car park into a snail-paced plod.

Then again, Dr. Bassem Youssef is not any heart surgeon. He doubles as a superstar satirist, the most popular – and most unlikely – presenter on Egyptian television. On Friday nights across the country, millions sit down to watch his piss-take of Egyptian politics: Al Bernameg (The Programme). Find a cafe at 11pm and chances are they’ll be screening it. Crash a dinner party and they’ll probably be talking about it. One well-known Cairo intellectual recently wrote of a classy supper that ended early so the diners could watch Youssef. For some, his show is one of the few concrete success stories of the 2011 uprising.

“This programme is a direct result of what happened in the revolution,” says the man himself, sitting in the theatre in downtown Cairo that was specially refurbished to house his show. In the room next door, a 30-strong research team trawls Egyptian media for footage to critique. “We are actually progressing. We are becoming more and more outspoken.”

It is fashionable to describe Youssef as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, the liberal comedian who critiques American politics on The Daily Show. It’s an epithet Youssef himself encourages. On the wall of his office, there even hangs a Stewart quotation, mounted on canvas: “I’m not going to censor myself to comfort your ignorance.”

Yet this is more than a simple act of homage and despite his deference, Youssef isn’t just another political satirist in Stewart’s mould. In Egypt’s nascent democracy, to poke fun at politicians is to do more than discomfort the ignorant. It’s a quick way of getting investigated by the state. Egypt’s chief prosecutor has already placed Youssef under investigation more than once for insulting Egypt’s new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.

“I love Jon Stewart and I will never shy from the fact that he is a role model,” says Youssef, flamboyant on camera but surprisingly serious in person. “But the show is different in so many ways; we are at a different stage in building our country. Stewart is in a much more stable environment, a much more established democracy. Here, it is much harder to come up with the programme.”

In Egypt, for example, there are things that Youssef finds too raw to satirise. “Give me political material, I can work with it,” he says. “But the blood and the violence? It’s torture. It puts everyone in a bad mood. I tried to write a segment about what’s happening in Mansoura but I couldn’t.”

Two years ago, no one had heard of Youssef. He was planning to leave Egypt for a hospital in the American Midwest. Then Mubarak fell and a space was created for previously unheard voices. Among them were Islamists, whose youth could be found venting their views on YouTube, and whose leaders are now in power. Others were graffiti artists. Then there was the leftist Kazeboon collective, who projected clips of hypocritical politicians in town squares across the country – the digital equivalent of 18th century pamphleteers.

Another new voice belonged to Youssef, who started making Stewart-style takedowns – known as the B+ Show – of Egyptian journalists and politicians, from his laundry room in southern Cairo. Barring an unaired series of mockumentaries about a religious cult that he filmed with a friend, he had no media experience. Then 36, he had a printed A4 sheet in lieu of an autocue, a pile of washing for an audience and instead of a big money TV deal, a YouTube channel.

He hoped for 10,000 hits. Within three months, he had 5 million. For Egypt, this was unheard of. “Before the B+ Show, we had absolutely no internet-dedicated show ever,” he remembers. “In the Arab world, there were a few experiences. In Egypt, there was nothing.”

Now, there are too many YouTube presenters to count, a hugely pluralistic crop that includes Islamists who slag off Youssef himself. “If someone says we led the way, it’s good to hear,” he says. “Every single day, every single week, there’s someone new with a video.”

In a way, Youssef’s fate is a bellwether for the state of free speech in post-2011 Egypt. On the one hand, he exists. He graduated to a TV show within months. Last year, he swapped channels in a big-money deal and became the first Egyptian presenter with a regular live audience. He ribs Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi - an act unthinkable under Mubarak and in his first show on CBC, his new employers, he poked fun at himself for leaving for more money and lampooned his new colleagues for their chequered journalistic history. He also takes on the ultra-orthodox Islamist sheikhs who rage against him and much of liberal Egypt on their own TV chat shows. “Just like you don’t consider us Muslims,” Youssef told them in one show earlier this year, “we don’t consider you sheikhs and scholars.” Metropolitan Egypt swooned.

Yet at the same time, Youssef’s career – and that of many Egyptian journalists – is still fragile. Last month, the esteemed editor of one state news outlet was forced to retire because, he claimed, of interference from the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s controversial new constitution is ambiguous about what counts as free speech. More people have been sued for insulting the president in the last eight months than in Mubarak’s entire reign. One of them is Youssef. Back in January, he superimposed Morsi’s face on a pillow, prompting a lawsuit. After an ‘investigation’, Egypt’s chief prosecutor threw the case out but the threat remains.

Subject-wise, there are also no-go areas. In 2011, Youssef said he would never touch religion or sex, saying that his mother would be upset. Two years later, she’ll probably be mildly peeved: Al Bernameg is no stranger to innuendo, where the material allows and Islam is not a taboo. Yet Youssef still says he would never target religion itself, only the ultra-orthodox clerics who force their extremism on regular Muslims.

“Religion, I’m not touching religion. I’m actually attacking people who are using religion and give a bad name to it.” As a Muslim, he strongly disagrees with questioning people’s beliefs in the first place and he also says it would be career suicide to try. “They will always use it to discredit you. ‘He is here to destroy religion.’ And you know that’s not true. And at the end of the day, with audiences in this part of world, you really don’t need to shock people. I mean, we are shocking people. But you really don’t need to destroy this whole belief system to do that.”

Outwardly, he is sanguine about what he says are the natural growing pains of a country getting used to democracy. “When you have freedom, you have the freedom to speak and you have the freedom to sue anybody,” he says. “So you have an abundance of freedom on both sides. You can’t prevent people from suing us. The tipping point would be if these lawsuits are activated by the attorney general. But it has not happened yet.”

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