How Far Can Egypt’s Jon Stewart Go Without Being Thrown In Jail?
As the new season of his show premieres, Bassem Youssef tries to find humor in military rule.
CAIRO — Red lights flood Bassem Youssef’s stage and silver glitter pours from the ceiling upon his circular, futuristic news desk. An array of dancers wearing gigantic rainbow-colored bowties file in behind Youssef, Egypt’s most famous satirist. With broad smiles, they dance happily as they sing about Egypt’s bloody summer. They describe how the Muslim Brotherhood won at the ballot box, but then betrayed the people’s trust, and the people returned to the streets to boot them out.
"Sissi fought terrorism, and so he made a coup!" concludes one of the dancers.
The song screeches to a halt. Youssef, dapperly attired in a suit, slaps his hand over the man’s mouth, while two other dancers pin his arms behind his back. "Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?" Youssef asks the man. "What, dude? I’m Christian," he responds.
You idiot, the joke went. You’re not supposed to call it a coup at all — it’s a popular revolution.
Youssef returned on Oct. 25 with the premiere of his third season of al-Bernameg ("The Show"), a political satire program akin to an Egyptian version of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. And his job is more difficult than ever: Since Youssef’s last episode aired in June, the military deposed former President Mohamed Morsy and Egypt suffered its worst internal violence in modern history. Now, Youssef’s return may answer a lingering question about the country’s emerging political reality: Are you allowed to laugh at Egypt’s new rulers?
The early signs are not good. Even before Youssef’s new episode premiered on Oct. 25, the State Commissioner’s Authority released a report criticizing a prior court ruling that dismissed charges against Youssef for insulting the presidency. The report recommended re-prosecuting Youssef, arguing that it was unacceptable to insult the president because he is a "symbol of the state."
Before an audience of roughly 200 people in downtown Cairo’s Radio Theatre, Youssef did his best to walk this political tightrope. In the front row of the audience sat businessman Mohammed el-Amin — the owner of the channel that airs Youssef’s show and an antagonist of the Muslim Brotherhood. And while Youssef skewered top political officials and media supporters of the new military-backed government, he did not lay a satirical glove on its central figure — army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Youssef made light of the difficulty of his task. A running gag at the beginning of the episode centered on his inability to develop a script — one of his writers merely spends his time daydreaming about the ubiquitous pro-army song "Teslam al-ayady." With political passions still running high, Youssef appeared to be asking, is there anything funny to say about Egyptian politics?
But it’s precisely this fevered political rhetoric that Youssef turns into the punch line. In one segment, he played clips of television anchors delivering increasingly stupendous estimates for the crowd sizes of the anti-Morsy protests: 25 million, 40 million — all the way up to 70 million. He cut to an interview with former Brotherhood parliamentarian Azza el-Garf, who triumphantly announced that 45 million people had taken to the streets in support of Morsy.
Looking perturbed, Youssef pulled out a calculator and began theatrically banging away; Egypt’s population, after all, is only roughly 80 million. "This means one of two things," he said. "Either Egypt’s population has expanded, or we have pimps who play both sides!"
Perhaps to the chagrin of the State Commissioner’s Authority, he didn’t spare President Adly Mansour, describing him as a political nonentity. "With Adly Mansour, you can close your eyes quickly," read one banner.
Mansour, however, is a sideshow — it’s Sisi, the current defense minister, who sits at the center of political power in Egypt. And here, Youssef was much more careful: It’s the fervent masses of Sisi supporters who come in for grief — not the general himself. He aired one video that showed a caller praising Sisi, followed by the anchor, at a loss for words, simply responding with a blissful aaah. "Are you all right?" Youssef asks, with a half-smile.
Youssef also pokes fun at the dark things that may happen if one inadvertently crosses the country’s powers that be. In one segment, he took aim at the new fad of plastering Sisi’s face on sweets. A baker comes out bearing a Sisi cake and Sisi cupcakes — he also sells a plain loaf of "Rabaa" bread, named after the pro-Morsy sit-in outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque.
"I’ll take a half kilo," Youssef says, suitable impressed with the cupcakes. The baker’s eyes narrow in suspicion at the small size of the order. Do you really like Sisi, he asks?
Youssef, suitably chastened, gives in. "OK, OK, I’ll take all of it."
Such jokes may make government officials squirm, but they’re more polite than the broadsides that Youssef launched at the Morsy government. This may also be affected by his audience, which is more sympathetic to the country’s current rulers. In a question and answer session during a break in filming, for instance, one woman stood up to express her love for "Teslam al-ayady," and therefore the Egyptian military.
"That is your right, and it is my right to be sarcastic about it. But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect the people who like it," Youssef replied. "Just as I could be sarcastic about Morsy, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t respect the people who supported him. Now we can make fun of the authorities, but we still respect its supporters." The parallel, however, was incomplete — he didn’t mention Sisi’s name.
After the lights went up on the final segment of the show, Youssef aired a clip of Sisi that was leaked by an Islamist website, showing the general speaking to a group of his fellow officers. One officer urged Sisi to pressure the media to not criticize the army — Sissi counseled patience, saying, "it takes a very long time until you possess an appropriate share of influence over the media."
"We would never accept having a [government] arm here," Bassem says, outraged. "The time when someone will control us is over!"
An arm suddenly pops up from below his desk, trying to warn him to temper his remarks. When Youssef keeps on speaking, the arm steals his script, and tries to replace it with another one. "No," Youssef says, throwing aside the doctored script. "We will not be controlled!"
The arm then tries a more direct approach — it moves away from Youssef’s face, diving under the table to grab his crotch. Youssef mimes intense pain, and stops his tirade. Fade to black.