Meet Egypt’s Jon Stewart, who is now under investigation for satire

January 2, 2013

In another sign that President Mohamed Morsi's Egypt may not be as democratic as the country's revolutionaries had hoped, Egyptian lawyers have launched an investigationinto a popular TV host there, arguing that he insulted Morsi on his Daily Show-esque television program.

Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef addresses attendants at a gala dinner party in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Ahmed Omar)
Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef addresses attendants at a gala dinner party in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Ahmed Omar)

On the episode in question, host Bassem Youssef holds a red, furry pillow with Morsi's image embroidered on it.

"The president understands us. He understands us better than we understand ourselves," Youssef says in the episode. "He tells us things we never knew," he adds, before cutting to clips of Morsi's long, detailed speeches.

"It's October 6! Tell us when it's Christmas!" Youssef shouts to the camera.

Youssef is essentially Egypt's version of Jon Stewart, a satirical "news show" host who mugs and smirks as he mocks Egypt's political climate. Like the "Daily Show," Youssef's show even has a similarly innocuous-sounding name: al Bernameg, or "the Program."  

A heart surgeon trained in the United States, Youssef took advantage of the media freedom after the end of the Mubarak regime in 2011 by parodying current evens on YouTube. The show was soon picked up by private satellite networks. Now, with more than 1.4 million fans on Facebook and nearly 850,000 Twitter followers, he's amassed legions of fans among the country's liberals, who see him as a champion of secular values. “He makes a point of saying: ‘We are reclaiming Islam. Islam belongs to us and not you. As Muslims we are offended by what you are saying, so we are defending our religion by ridiculing you,’” Hossam Bahgat, the executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told the New York Times.

But his antics have sparked the ire of Egypt's hardline Islamists. Salafi Sheik Abu Islam Ahmed Abdullah, who owns another satellite channel, recently offered his own message to Youssef: “Yes, we’re the ones who were told by God to tell people how to go to heaven and how to go to hell. The Koran itself cursed at the likes of Bassem Youssef." 

Throughout Egypt's presidential election, Youssef lampooned each of the candidates, and he seemed ambivalent about offending them when asked by CNN if he thought the presidential hopefuls were in on the joke:

"Honestly, I don't care," he said. "They have to live for the fact that they aren't coming in as a pharaoh or king, and they have to live with people making fun of them, even if they are the best presidents in the world."

His investigation is not the first incidence of crackdowns on media figures in Egypt, which have sparked new concerns over press freedom there, as the Associated Press reported:

Other cases have been brought against media personalities who have criticized the president. Some of the cases have ended with charges being dropped. Morsi’s office maintains that the president has nothing to do with legal procedures against media critics.

 

On Tuesday, the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt’s most widely circulated newspapers, said Morsi’s office filed a complaint accusing it of “circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security and affect the administration.

 

Authorities ordered the closure of TV station “Al-Fareen” last summer after bringing its owner, Tawfiq Okasha, to trial for scathing attacks against Morsi and his Brotherhood group. Okasha had emerged as one of the most popular TV personalities of post-Mubarak Egypt by railing against the uprising that toppled Mubarak’s 29-year rule in February 2011.

One of the main points of contention about Egypt's recently-approved constitution is that it says basic rights “must be practiced in a manner not conflicting with principles of Shariah or the morals of the family," thereby potentially steamrolling opposition activists and free media. Independent publications closed for a day during voting to protest the lack of an article in the constitution banning arrest of journalists for what they write.

Human Rights Watch said the constitution "protects some rights but undermines others." It "fails to end military trials of civilians or to protect freedom of expression and religion." Democracy monitor Freedom House gives Egypt a "partly free" press rating.

Youssef's commentary hasn't been limited to government officials -- a good chunk of a recent show was dedicated to skewering presenters for Egyptian broadcaster CBC. But he's also given a public voice to the fears of Egypt's most recent wave of protesters, who say Morsi's recent power grabs make him no better than Mubarak.

In another clip filmed shortly after Morsi issued a decree that placed him above judicial oversightYoussef asks whether Egyptians started a revolution only to remove a dictator and bring in a new one.

Youssef seems aware of the precariousness of his own situation. In a Dec. 14 show, he opens his second season with a nod to tensions between the press and the Egyptian government:

"This is our first episode, but due to financial constraints, and/or the nature of the content, it may be our last. You know how it is with freedom of the press around here ... they said, no pencil shall be broken, and that's true, the pencils are safe despite the TV channels shutting down."

Youssef borrows Stewart's fondness for showing photos and video clips to underscore his punchlines.

At one point, he flashes an image of Morsi to his right and says, "NO, not this guy! We don't want to piss him off."

You can watch a recent episode of Youssef's program -- with subtitles -- here:

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Caitlin Dewey | January 2, 2013