CAIRO — In these turbulent days, Egypt is a political satirist’s paradise — or minefield. Bassem Youssef is about to find out which.
The country’s most popular comedian, whose cause was championed by Jon Stewart when Youssef’s scathing stand-up humor drew the wrath of Egypt’s then-Islamist government, is scheduled to return to the airwaves Friday night after a more than three-month hiatus. And Egyptians are buzzing about what his take on an authoritarian-minded new administration will be.
Youssef has vowed to pull no punches and spare no punch lines. He has already said he won’t be surprised if state prosecutors come calling after he unveils his new act.
But his problem may lie primarily with his audience, not the authorities. The same cosmopolitan crowd that cheered Youssef’s bold gibes against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi — for which the comic was arrested and accused of diminishing the stature of the presidency, among other things — may find it very unfunny if he goes after the exceedingly popular army Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, who deposed Morsi.
Amid international criticism of the July coup and the subsequent crackdown on Morsi’s followers, Sisi’s admirers have shown themselves to be a thin-skinned lot, shouting down anyone who dares publicly criticize the army chief. Many of the same Egyptians who poured into the streets nearly three years ago to challenge autocratic President Hosni Mubarak, including an influential class of liberal elites, are happy to accept a deeply undemocratic new order as the price for pushing out Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
Youssef has acknowledged his quandary. Poking fun at the status quo is a tricky matter, if that status quo happens to be what almost everyone — everyone, that is, except the now-banned Brotherhood and its backers — seems to want.
The 39-year-old comic is something of a Renaissance man: a dashing, dapper cardiac surgeon who also pens a newspaper column. His comedy career began as a hobby when, inspired by Stewart and “The Daily Show,” he began taping satirical diatribes in his laundry room and distributing them on YouTube. His popularity grew by leaps and bounds.
After Morsi won the presidency last year, many Egyptians quickly began to bridle at the Brotherhood’s inept governance and heavy-handed approach to Islam’s role in public life. Energized by the backlash, Youssef came into his own, staging choice bits such as a raucous song-and-dance takeoff on the old Barry Manilow number “Copacabana.” His version began with “His name was MOR-si…” and concluded with a percussive “…and we got screwed!”
Soon after his arrest, the comic traveled to New York and was feted by Time magazine, for which Stewart had written a tribute to him (“Bassem Youssef is my hero”) and appeared as a guest on "The Daily Show." There, he again courted the anger of the pro-Morsi set, likening them to pimply, insecure teenagers. The Brotherhood was not amused.
Youssef’s show is called “El Bernameg” — which means “The Program,” so he entertains himself by enthusiastically welcoming viewers every week to the “The Program Program” — was about to begin a scheduled Ramadan break when Morsi was ousted by the army after enormous nationwide protests demanding that he step aside. Youssef was still off the air when events in August took a bloody turn, with police and soldiers breaking up pro-Morsi protest camps, killing hundreds of people.
Despite his huge following, Youssef is not without his critics. Some fans felt he sold out by moving to the establishment-minded Capital Broadcast Center. And even loyal viewers grumble about such a relentless barrage of advertising on the show that the comedy almost takes a back seat to the commercials. (In the tradition of U.S. late-night hosts who lambaste their own networks, Youssef routinely makes fun of the heavy ad load too.)
In his newspaper column this week, he made a plea for tolerance.
“In our country, many of us base their opinion of a program or a presenter not on quality of content, but on how much that presenter’s opinion falls in line with theirs,” he wrote. “They tell you, ‘Say what you want, but be objective and impartial.’ You try to decipher the meaning of ‘objective and impartial’ — in reality, it means ‘Say my opinion.’”
In this fraught and fragile phase of political transition, Egypt might prove no country for funny men; these days, it seems like the kind of place where absolutely no one can take a joke. But Youssef’s cheerful advice to his compatriots is: If you don’t like it, don’t watch.
“That’s why God invented the remote,” he said.
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.