The Egyptian satirist stands on the front lines of Egypt’s culture wars.
- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO, Egypt — A Beyoncé lyric graces the door to the office of Egypt’s most famous satirist: "All the single ladies, Bassem is here!"
Past the door, Bassem Youssef’s office is a testament to the comedian’s eclectic tastes. There is a life-sized cutout of Angelina Jolie and a golden brown painting of Arabic calligraphy. There is a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Anthony Shadid’s House of Stone. There is a dartboard and a plate inscribed with a design that celebrates Egypt’s pharaonic heritage. There are rubber duckies — one dressed in a tuxedo, one as a chef, and one as a devil — scattered throughout the room.
Youssef is not just funny — he matters. His arrest by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-aligned prosecutor general ballooned into an international event, as he showed up at the court wearing a massive version of the graduation hat President Mohamed Morsy wore in Pakistan, and tweeted from inside the prosecutor-general’s office that he had been arrested solely so the police officers and lawyers could take pictures with him. His April 24 appearance on the fake news set of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show was a body blow to those in the United States who argue the Brotherhood can be prodded in a democratic direction. "They are insecure," Youssef mused to Stewart. "They are locked up in their teenage years. They still have pimples and have to deal with their, I don’t know, bodily hair."
Youssef’s satirical news program al-Bernameg ("The Program") has also become one of the sole, unapologetically liberal rejoinders to the Morsy government and Islamist political dominance of post-revolution Egypt. At a moment when Egypt’s opposition appears hopelessly fractured, liberals, socialists, and Nasserists alike can all agree on one thing: They love Bassem.
It has been Youssef, not the diverse array of opposition politicians, who has developed the sharpest critique of Islamism. "We have a façade. We have a pseudo-appearance of what Islam is," he told Foreign Policy. "Islam’s not just about covering your hair. It’s about how you treat other people. If you cover your hair or you have a beard, and then you are being a douchebag to other people, that’s not Islam."
It’s impossible to avoid the omnipresent description of Youssef as "Egypt’s Jon Stewart," but the two comedians share more than a similar style. Just as Stewart took off during the George W. Bush years among liberals who felt alienated by the status quo, Youssef’s show speaks to secular Egyptians who feel marginalized by the Islamist ruling class. Thirty million viewers tune in for each episode of al-Bernameg, according to the channel that hosts it, CBC. Café crowds shush and dinner parties stop when Youssef comes on — for a certain segment of Egyptians, it is not just a comedy show, but a political event.
Youssef is well aware of how much his popularity owes to the Morsy administration, and to the military government that came before it. "Sarcasm all around the world is always against right wing and against people in power," he said. "That’s the definition of political sarcasm. And having the [Egyptian] right wing in power is like having George W. Bush in power: It’s a gold mine for everybody."
There is a slapstick element to Youssef’s schtick — he often appears unable to control the videos accompanying his monologue. "All we talk about is politics. Today I want to talk about something softer," he says in one episode, as a plate of Jello pops up on the screen, to his exasperation. Later, he tells his audience that he wants to discuss the president’s statements — only to be confronted with a video of Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badei, whom some Brotherhood critics accuse of being the puppeteer guiding Morsy’s actions. "Not him, damn you, not him!" Youssef complains.
But it is comedy with a purpose. On the Dec. 21 episode of al-Bernameg, Youssef ran clips of Islamists delivering outrageous insults at him. "Bassem doesn’t know how to clean himself in the bathroom," said one Islamist pundit. "I invite him to read al-Fatiha [the first chapter of the Quran] on the air — if he reads it correctly, I will stop doing dawa [proselytization for Islam]."
As the episode closed, Youssef dropped the comedic act and hit back — hard. "They look at us and don’t see Christians and Muslims, no. They see non-believers, hypocrites, enemies of the religion and God," he said, before addressing his critics directly. "The equation is very simple. Just like you don’t consider us Muslims, we don’t consider you sheikhs or scholars." The approving roar from the studio audience was immense.
Youssef, who is a practicing Muslim, frames his stance as a defense of freedom of opinion against religious dogmatism. "It’s about how you preserve religion and use it in spiritual leadership, instead of a tool of tyranny," he told FP. "That’s our biggest problem. You can’t just say ‘vote for someone’ or ‘follow this person because that’s the way of God.’ When you do that, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a Muslim or Buddhist — it’s tyranny."
Youssef has a regular column for the Egyptian daily al-Shorouk, where he writes seriously about the problems facing Egypt — and gleefully mocks his Islamist critics. Shortly after the April 24 Daily Show episode aired, the Brotherhood attempted to tar Youssef for his association with a Jewish comedian: Its official Twitter feed approvingly passed along an al-Jazeera clip featuring former CNN host Rick Sanchez, who referred to Stewart as "bigoted" and claimed that Jews control the media.
Youssef didn’t back down. "These people talk about the tolerance of Islam with other religions, but at the same time they do not distinguish between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political stance," he wrote in al-Shorouk.
Youssef does more than defend his friends — he stands up for a liberal lifestyle in a country veering toward conservatism. He doesn’t apologize for drinking alcohol: In one episode, following a clip where an Islamist television personality accused the media of "suckling on the devil’s breasts," Youssef sucks on a red baby bottle. "It could be a Bloody Mary, I don’t know," he says. And he isn’t squeamish about being interested in sex: Responding to claims that alcohol and condoms had been found at an anti-Morsy sit-in, he quips optimistically, "We’ll be multiplying."
In our interview, Youssef played down his social liberalism. He wants to keep the focus on his argument that Islamists are using religion to bully Egyptians out of the public arena — a unifying message that transcends the liberal and conservative divide. "[Egypt is] a conservative country, so yeah, [that] makes people who are more conservative get an advantage," he said. "But wh
at we have now is not about religion; it’s just about people who are being hot-headed and people who are being extreme."
It’s a tough line to walk. So much of Egypt’s political crisis comes down to a trust deficit: The opposition suspects the Brotherhood and its allies of plotting to dominate government institutions and transform Egypt from a republic into a hard-line Islamic state. The Islamists Youssef lampoons on his show accuse their rivals of being hard-drinking, drug-taking hedonists who have sex out of wedlock — essentially, forces representing a culture foreign to Egypt. The level of duplicity is far from equal, but leaders from both sides prefer to downplay certain aspects of who they are.
Recently, Youssef hosted an openly gay singer from the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila on al-Bernameg, and the ensuing controversy threatened to drag the comedian into Egypt’s incipient culture war. In light of the dispute, I asked Youssef if he had a different view on homosexuality than his Islamist critics. He repeated what he had said previously: He did not know the singer was gay, that it was not an issue that came up during the performance, and that the band members had been granted a visa to enter Egypt.
But that wasn’t the question. I tried once more to get Youssef to open up on his views about homosexuality. "That’s not even something that’s on my mind…We have much bigger issues about political freedoms and social freedoms," he said. "The thing is, they [his Islamist critics] just want you to get sidetracked with other things. And they know, of course, that if you are in the form of pro-gay or whatever, they would put you in a bad place. It’s the same thing as if they put you against God."
Following his answer, Youssef turned to his media handler and said in Arabic, "Is that fine?" Then he turned back to me and explained, "He just monitors everything to see if I’m going to screw up."
There are some things in Egypt, it appears, even comedians don’t dare joke about.