Top TV satirist back on air in a changed Egypt
CAIRO – Egypt’s most popular TV satirist, famed for mercilessly skewering the former Islamist president on his weekly program, dove headfirst back into stormy politics Friday after four months off the air amid the turmoil surrounding the country’s coup. His new target for mockery: the over-the-top, pro-military fervor sweeping Egyptians.
Bassem Youssef, the man known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” returned to the air in a radically different nation, where satirizing the leadership is a far trickier task.
When his final show of last season aired, the president was Islamist Mohammed Morsi – Youssef’s favorite target. For months, the satirist flayed him and his Islamist supporters for mixing religion and politics and for botching the governing of the country. Soon after the last show, massive protests began against Morsi, paving the way for the military to remove him on July 3.
Since then, divisions have grown deeper and hatreds stronger. Hundreds have been killed in crackdowns on protesters demanding Morsi’s reinstatement. Attacks by Islamic extremists against security forces and Christians have increased. A nationalist fervor gripping the country has elevated the military to an untouchable status, leaving little tolerance among the public or officials for criticism, particularly of military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, lionized in the media as a hero.
So the question was hanging over Friday’s episode of “El-Bernameg” – Arabic for “The Program”: Will Youssef mock the military-backed leadership and its supporters as sharply as he did Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists?
His answer: With song and dance and rapid-fire jokes, Youssef satirized el-Sissi-worship – even with innuendos about how the extravagant shows of love for the general have become outright sexual. Youssef imitated the general’s soft-spoken, affectionate way of addressing the public, turning it into a lover’s romantic groove.
In one skit, a woman named “the Public” calls into a love advice show raving about the love of her life who saved her from an abusive husband.
“He’s an officer as big as the world,” she cooes adoringly, punning on a slogan el-Sissi uses in nearly every speech – “Egypt will be big enough to face down the world.” Then she adds, “He does have a sovereign streak.”
In another, a pastry chef brings Youssef a tray of chocolates with el-Sissi’s face on – something that, in fact, has become popular in Egyptian candy stores. “What, don’t you like el-Sissi?” the delivery man says suspiciously. “Give me all of it!” Youssef yelped back, as if afraid of being accused of being a traitor.
“Who doesn’t love el-Sissi?” Youssef said sarcastically, “but will love make us forget everything?” – referring to the way Morsi also tried to win the love of the public. “We’re a free voice. No one can tell us what to say,” he said. “We want freedom. The time of fear has passed.”
The show had to tread a sensitive line. Criticizing the military risked angering Youssef’s mainly liberal fan base, who cheered when he excoriated Islamists and who now largely support el-Sissi for removing the Brotherhood from power. But avoiding it would also appear to be caving in to pressure. Before the show aired, Morsi supporters – some of whom “hate-watched” Youssef as regularly as the adoring fans – were predicting on social media the 39-year-old satirist would sell out.
Youssef’s long hiatus between seasons was in part because a curfew in place since mid-August made filming the show difficult and because of the recent death of Youssef’s mother.
The surgeon-turned-comedian’s “Daily Show”-style program brought an entirely new type of political satire to Egypt. He began with short, self-made YouTube episodes during the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. He was picked up by a TV station popular among young revolutionaries. As his star rose, he moved to another station, CBC, seen as stacked by former supporters of Mubarak.
Many thought Youssef would follow the station’s conservative line. But he turned his jokes against his own station, mocking its claims of revolutionary credentials. With sky-high ratings bringing advertising cash, CBC was not about to drop him. Since the coup, the station has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for el-Sissi.
But his biggest target was the Islamist elite that rose to power in post-Mubarak elections – excoriating them so sharply that some credit him for fueling the tidal wave of protests against Morsi. In fast-paced jokes, Youssef lampooned Morsi’s clumsy speeches and gestures. He played clips from Islamist TV stations to expose hypocrisy in their mix of religion and politics. He fact-checked the president. One episode in which he played video clips showing 2010 remarks by Morsi, calling Zionists “pigs,” caused a brief diplomatic tiff with Washington.
In reply, Islamist lawyers prompted prosecutors to issue an arrest warrant against Youssef on charges of “insulting the presidency.” He was questioned and released without charges.
In a column earlier this week, Youssef pushed back against the atmosphere of intimidation, noting that he could be dragged before prosecutors even now, this time “at the hands of other people, who allegedly love freedom dearly – when it works in their favor.”
“In reality, there is no tolerance on the Brotherhood side or among those who call themselves liberals,” he wrote in the Al-Shorouk newspaper.
Those watching quickly weighed in on the show on social networking sites.
One commenter on Twitter, whose leaning was clear from the Twitter handle “El-Sissi is my love,” derided Youssef for knocking the general..
“Do you consider yourself a hero, Bassem? Serious bad on you. El-Sissi is not acting, you clown!” the commenter wrote, using the same insult Islamists often threw at Youssef.
Mostafa el-Naggar, a leading politician critical of the Brotherhood and now of the current authorities, tweeted that Youssef expressed the opinion of “the third party, who represent the majority of Egyptians, even if their voices are faint while the voices of those who claim to represent the people are loud.”