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The Silencing of Egypt’s Jon Stewart
The rise and fall of a funnyman in a strongman state.
Egyptians moved their clocks forward an hour a couple of weeks ago following a decision by the country’s new rulers to reinstitute daylight saving time, which had been eliminated following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. For the rather embattled group of revolutionaries who reject the domination of both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, this inspired a joke: "They are taking away the revolution’s only lasting achievement!" It’s dark humor, to be sure, but humor in itself can be something quite potent — and to some in Cairo, quite threatening.
Egypt just got a rude wake-up call about that fact. On Monday, Bassem Youssef — the man described as Egypt’s "Jon Stewart," who ran a program gleefully satirizing the country’s predominant political narrative — announced that his show was, at least for now, over. The program, called El-Bernameg, had already been forced to suspend shooting a few weeks ago, under the pretext that it would unduly influence Egyptian voters in the run-up to the Egyptian presidential election in late May. Of course, all other television shows — including those that unapologetically tried to politically influence viewers — were left untouched. The program was nevertheless due to return on Friday, May 30 — but didn’t.
This is the second time Youssef has stopped airing his program. Last year, he parted ways with the Egyptian network CBC on less than amicable terms, after the channel declared that Youssef had gone against their "editorial guidelines" — presumably due to his less than adulatory stance toward the new military-backed government. This time, however, Youssef had nothing but praise for his current network, the Saudi-owned MBC. At a press conference announcing the indefinite suspension of the show, Youssef did not go into details, but clearly alluded to pressures that were beyond the control of the program, and the channel itself.
Rumors will now abound. There are, of course, suspicions that the higher echelons of the Saudi state, which is very supportive of the Egyptian establishment that Youssef’s program infuriated so much, put pressure on MBC. However, those suspicions are difficult to prove. What is clear is that at different times in the past two years, whether under former President Mohamed Morsi or the military-backed government that succeeded him, Youssef and his staff were subjected to court cases, death threats, and other modes of harassment.
The harassment began in a pronounced fashion during the Morsi era. Youssef had not voted for Morsi — he had been filming abroad during the presidential run-off — but had made it clear that voting for the other contender, Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmad Shafiq, would be a "very hard thing" for him to contemplate. In the early months of Morsi’s time in office, El-Bernameg tried, unsuccessfully, to get him onto the show, as the president of the republic — something that no other show in the non-Islamist, let alone anti-Islamist, media arena had contemplated.
Youssef’s program progressively became more critical of the government. He lampooned Morsi’s now-famous presidential decree that exempted his decisions from judicial oversight, and continued to be a prominent critic thereafter.
The Morsi administration and its supporters struck back. Over the course of the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power, Youssef was arrested and investigated by the prosecutor general’s office for "insulting the president" as well as for "insulting Islam." With other members of the team also facing legal action, Youssef faced death threats from unknown sources. Separately, pro-government preachers declared watching his program to be forbidden under Islamic law. Although Youssef describes himself as a faithful, practicing Muslim, he took exception to the increasing visibility of extremist preachers, whom he argued were tarnishing his religion; in turn, those radicals, many of whom were openly supportive of Morsi’s administration, continued to rally against him.
Youssef supported the June 30 campaign calling for early presidential elections, and also celebrated the departure of the Islamist president after he was ousted by the military on July 3, 2013. Part of this was probably due to his own personal fears: He was aware that the authorities had drawn up a list of more than 20 media personalities who had been described as going too far in criticizing the presidency. In Morsi’s last speech before the protests began, he also made it clear that "one year was enough," and singled out the media for particular criticism. For Youssef, this would have been confirmation that if the June 30 protests did not succeed in effecting some sort of change, he and many other prominent media figures would be arrested.
Following Morsi’s ouster, Youssef wrote that the immediate closure of several Islamist channels that were inciting violence and sectarianism in the wake of Morsi’s removal was justified. Within a couple of weeks, however, he was writing articles asking when the Islamist channels would be reopened, and calling for the new military-backed authorities to be held accountable for human rights abuses. He warned anti-Brotherhood Egyptians against letting their victory against the MB cloud their judgement and become "fascist," and called for an investigation into the clearing of the Raba’a sit-ins, where Youssef insisted innocent people had died. Probably due to Youssef’s deep antipathy to the Brotherhood, the group’s supporters argued that he cheered on the crackdown — but his weekly columns in Egypt’s Shorouk newspaper showed otherwise. Though his program was off the air for the summer vacation and due to the passing of Youssef’s mother, it was clear from his articles that he was becoming more critical of the ultra-nationalistic tendency that was sweeping the country’s mainstream narrative, and the fawning media that promoted it.
But for opponents of the military, both Islamist and otherwise, he did not take on the new leadership directly enough. Indeed, Youssef’s criticism of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was very different than that of Morsi: The program was far more delicate and careful with the military-backed government. Part of that was likely strategic: Under Morsi, a broad spectrum of institutions — inside and outside of the state — were not happy with the fact that he was president, which gave Youssef a certain amount of space in which to operate. When Sisi’s military-backed government took power, it became a different ballgame altogether: If Youssef’s program chose to back the nationalistic theme that was then (and now) dominating the Egyptian media, he would be among friends; if he went against the grain, he would be gaining enemies across all of Egypt’s institutions. He and his team chose the latter — and that choice is what eventually led to the end of the show.
Had Youssef been willing to make certain compromises, El-Bernameg could have gone on. He could have turned his show into one that lauded the now president-elect — certainly, that is what nearly all of the Egyptian media now does in some shape or form. He could have chosen to leave Egypt and broadcast in exile, or he could have gone to another channel — either another Arab one, or a European station.
t Youssef always made it clear that his program was an Egyptian program, and that it would be aired from Egypt on an Arab station — otherwise, it wouldn’t be aired. The last thing he wanted was to invite yet more attacks about the program being some sort of treasonous foreign entity. In discontinuing his show, Youssef and his team have sent a message: They refuse to compromise on their content to satisfy the powers that be. That is certainly unlike most of the Egyptian media — indeed, unlike media outlets the world over, including within the United States and Europe.
The departure of El-Bernameg from the Arab media scene is a sad one. Youssef and his team have faced court cases, gone through different television stations, suffered death threats, and coped with religious extremism and ultranationalism. In the end, the pressure proved too much for him, his team, and his station — because ultimately, they realized that in this new environment, there would be no one to stand by them if they were eventually taken down.
This episode says a great deal about the state of Egyptian media and media freedom in 2014. As for the future of El-Bernameg, Youssef put it plainly: "The show is not dead. It’s sleeping, because little children don’t want to hear it." But no one sleeps forever — and generally, the old tend to die before the young. If nothing else, El-Bernameg, like a majority of Egypt’s population, is young.