Wow: Nearly half of Egyptians support suspending TV satirist Bassem Youssef

November 4, 2013

Egyptians gather in front of a poster of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef at a theater in Cairo. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Like all good political satirists, Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef attracts controversy and criticism, especially from his powerful targets. But a new poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research finds that he may have alienated much of the Egyptian public as well: 44 percent say they support his TV network's recent decision to suspend Youssef's popular show. Another 48 percent say they oppose the decision, making it nearly split.

That's a strikingly high proportion of Egyptians to support shutting down perhaps the country's best-known commentator, who is frequently compared to Daily Show host Jon Stewart and is internationally celebrated. While of course a number of Egyptians still vocally support Youssef and many are publicly criticizing the private TV network that suspended his show, the division over Youssef is a sign of Egypt's troubled political climate. It also raises questions about whether the country's best-known satirist, who survived the Islamist government that was openly hostile to his network, can still thrive in a climate increasingly intolerant of dissent against the military regime.

Youssef was suspended last week after the first episode of his new season criticized the country's new military government and its rising nationalist fervor. He had actually been far more critical of the government during the rule of President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who was expelled in July by a military coup. And while Youssef was briefly arrested earlier this year for mocking Morsi, he still kept the public's -- and his network's -- support. There's something much more sensitive, it seems, about daring to tease the military government.

Egypt's July 3 military coup has coincided with a tremendous rise in nationalism, as well as a growing embrace of the new government's stern authoritarianism. Huge numbers of Egyptians rallied in support of not just the coup but the military government's ensuing crackdown on Islamists who had set up a massive protest camp in Cairo, large numbers of whom were killed.

That Youssef's network suspended the popular show over its criticism of the military leader, Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, would seem to prove the satirist's point about Egypt's rising, nationalism-fueled intolerance. It's also a sign of growing media self-censorship in Egypt, a show of fealty to the new military government. There are signs that this isn't just a preemptive fear of censorship but perhaps, at least in part, an earnest subservience to the military.

At the beginning Monday of Morsi's trial on charges of inciting murder, some Egyptian journalists began shouting from the gallery for the former president's "execution." That tells you a lot about how elements of the Egyptian media see their role in post-coup Egypt -- and about how harsh the political climate has become. It's not an atmosphere that's especially welcoming to satirical teasing or open conversation about the dangers of rising nationalism.

Youssef might have been able to get through a year of a Morsi administration that appeared to fear and hate him, and that he regularly savaged on his show, but things may be different now. If almost half of the country really believes that he should be suspended from the air for his moderate criticism of nationalistic intolerance, it could be more difficult for his show to survive -- particularly since he's now criticizing the "liberals" who make up much of his audience.

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