CAIRO — Egypt’s favorite funnyman is back on the air.
After a four-month hiatus, the popular and controversial political satirist Bassem Youssef returned to the airwaves Friday night to host an hour-long episode of his show “El Bernameg” (“The Program”).
The last time he appeared, in late June, Youssef had established himself as one of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s most vocal and ardent opponents. He later backed the protests and the military coup that toppled Morsi from power.
But it was far from clear how Youssef’s approach — which mimics Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” — would play in a new Egypt dripping with pro-army nationalism and cult-like praise of defense minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, now the country’s de facto leader.
In a late-night broadcast full of parody newscasts and tongue-in-cheek commmentary, Youssef chose not to directly take on the powerful — and much-loved — general. But he did allude to Sissi’s rumored political ambitions, and ridiculed media personalities who offer sycophantic testimonials to Egypt’s armed forces.
“Was it a soft coup?” Youssef asked, taking aim at the debate over what to call the events that led to Morsi’s ouster. Poking fun at the idea that a coup could ever be “soft,” he produced a red rose and pretended that the military had simply been splitting up with a longtime girlfriend: “Morsi, baby, it’s not us — it’s you.”
Before Youssef’s appearance, there had been some speculation that the onetime cardiac surgeon might decide to steer clear of satire for good. He was reemerging in an Egypt very much transformed by the coup, one where hardcore nationalism has left little room for criticism or dissent, and where judicial figures and journalists have been detained for crimes such as “insulting the army.’’
“Can he talk about the current government the way he talked about Morsi? I don’t think so,” student Haithem Khalifa, 26, said of Youssef before the show Friday. Morsi and his supporters were the primary targets of Youssef’s biting humor for the year the Islamist leader was in power.
Youssef appeared Friday to have retreated from his normal style of bluntly and often personally challenging political figures. Instead, he tested the waters — lampooning peripheral issues of military rule.
In one segment, he focused on a particular aspect of the country’s love for Sissi: Cupcakes and chocolates adorned with his photo are sold in sweet shops across Cairo.
A baker offers Youssef a number of sweets that have been renamed after Sissi. “Do you have a reconciliation chocolate?” Youssef asked, referring to the stalled process of bringing the Muslim Brotherhood back into the political fold.
“No,” the baker responded. “But we report [to the authorities] anyone who asks.”
Later, he made fun of the notoriously bland interim President Adly Mansour, flashing pictures of Mansour constantly frowning.
“People said his credibility would be on the line,” Zein el-Abidin Khairy, a columnist for the state-owned daily newspaper, Al Ahram, said of Youssef. “Would he deal with the interim government? They have given him a lot of material to work with.”
Underscoring the risk Youssef takes with his sarcastic political humor, a panel of judges linked to Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court issued an advisory opinion urging the judiciary to reopen a case against the comedian for “insulting the president.”
The charges were filed by an Islamist lawyer and supporter of Morsi in March, but were later dismissed.
“He was disrespectful not only to President Morsi but to everyone who voted for him,” said 29-year-old Anwar Abbas, an engineer and Morsi supporter.
But in a more serious monologue at the end of his show, Youssef said he would not be intimidated by the ongoing attempts to censor him.
“People want to know who I support,” Youssef said. “But I will tell you who I do not support. I am not with the people who called us infidels,” he said, referring to the Islamists that often tried to paint Youssef as anti-Islam. “But I’m also not with hypocrisy or ‘Pharaoh-ism,’ ” he said, taking a swipe at Sisi.
With some 30 million viewers, Youssef “has a wide audience,” columnist Khairy said.
“[He] doesn’t have to be all-out confrontational,” Egyptian activist and blogger Wael Eskandar posted on Twitter during the episode. But “he needs to carve out enough space for the rest of us.”
Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.