Bassem Youssef, the wildly popular Egyptian television satirist whose popularity exploded after the 2011 uprising, and who lampooned both hardline Islamists and the military, appears to have finally lost his running street battle with the state.
On his third television network and after being forced off the air in May — under the pretense that his politically charged comedy could influence voters in an election that was a foregone conclusion — Youssef summoned journalists to his Cairo studio on Monday and broke the news.
“The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program," he said. “I’m tired of struggling and fearing for my personal and my family’s safety and that of the people around me.”
Youssef, often called the Jon Stewart of Egypt, didn’t need to be explicit about his reasons for ending El Bernameg, often translated as “The Show” or “The Program”: He was pulling the plug less than a week after a presidential election that had all the subtlety of a ground invasion, one which is expected to deliver General Abdelfattah el-Sisi, the former defense minister, into power with more than 90 percent of the vote.
Youssef, whose show was picked up several months ago by the Saudi-owned MBC network, had already been dumped by his old employer last November after an episode in which he mocked the nation’s growing “Sisi-mania.”
Now, he said, El Bernameg did not have “a place” in Egypt.
Youssef, a cardiothoracic surgeon by training, launched his show as a simple, homemade YouTube series in March 2011, following the revolt against Hosni Mubarak, when Egypt felt giddy with possibilities of free speech that would have been unthinkable during Mubarak’s nearly 30-year-long autocracy. He explicitly modeled his routine on Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and when the liberal network ONTV picked him up, it was like Tahrir Square — or at least one part of it — had made it big.
But Youssef and his show — like Tahrir and the revolution — occupy a more complicated place in Egypt’s political universe than his comparison to Stewart may suggest, and his cultivated Comedy Central style and multiple appearances on Stewart’s own show — as well as Stewart’s reciprocal appearance on El Bernameg — have earned him a profile in America that has eclipsed some of his nuances back home.
Like Stewart, Youssef became more than a simple joke-teller. Just as Stewart famously choked back tears during his earnest, heartfelt monologue after the September 11 terrorist attacks and later made a passionate plea for saner TV journalism on CNN’s Crossfire, Youssef seemed to begin to see himself as a voice of conscience, and he regularly directed un-ironic soliloquies — often about freedom of speech and religion — toward the government.
The 2012 election of Mohamed Morsi, a high-ranking official in the Muslim Brotherhood, was a turning point for Youssef. Millions of viewers held their breath to see if he would be bold enough to lambast the head of state in a country where that had long been a crime. And Youssef did, laying into Morsi, the Brotherhood and their Islamist cadres with gusto.
That Youssef was subsequently targeted for investigation by the Morsi-appointed prosecutor general was testament to the effectiveness of his satire. Every Friday, crowds gathered around television sets in central Cairo’s coffee shops and storefronts to catch El Bernameg and Youssef’s expert vivisections of Morsi’s policy missteps, flubbed speeches and country-bumpkin quirks of language. Like George W. Bush for Stewart, Morsi provided Youssef with a wealth of material. Youssef’s performance in 2013 earned him a Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Youssef’s combination of comedy and earnest denunciation of the Brotherhood’s partisan and sectarian politics contributed to a surge of anti-Morsi sentiment in the first half of 2013, but when massive protests broke out on June 30 and were followed swiftly by a coup led by Sisi, Youssef seemed to lose his moral footing. With many Western observers expressing concern and Brotherhood protests breaking out against Morsi’s ouster, Youssef tweeted that the organization was “sending its youths to die” for cheap publicity and joined with others who declared that what had occurred was not a coup.
Morsi’s downfall was followed six weeks later by a brutal crackdown against the protesters in Cairo and elsewhere in the country, leaving more than 1,000 dead. Youssef, on summer break at the time of the coup, would not return until October, a hiatus he said was lengthened by the death of his mother.
In his regular newspaper column, he seemed to struggle with how to frame the bloody events. He criticized his liberal allies for endorsing the violence as a means to eliminate what they saw as the Brotherhood’s existential threat to their way of life, but he stopped short of expressing empathy for Morsi’s supporters.
“The fascist nature of those [liberals] is no different than that of the Islamists who think that their enemies’ disappearance off this planet would be a victory for the religion of God,” he wrote that July. “[But] we have witnessed from experience that [the Brotherhood] do not keep their word, and lie time and again, as long as it serves their political agenda. They have their means of manipulating religion and justifying their actions so long as it serves their politics.”
A month later, after the bloodshed, he wrote in another column that he would “side with the Brotherhood,” using his supposedly new point of view instead as a rhetorical device to present the Brotherhood’s most controversial views and alleged crimes: burning churches, torturing residents near their protest sites and inciting violence against religious minorities.
“I have decided to support the Brotherhood even if this leads to the burning of Egypt, the spread of armed groups and the realization of their precious dreams of a divided army and foreign intervention,” he wrote. “It does not matter if we are a revised copy of the Syrian scenario; all of this is for a higher purpose, which is the victory of the Islamic state or what is left of it.”
Ultimately, the fears that Youssef and other liberals had of the Brotherhood were never realized. The events of July and August put an end to whatever plans the group may have had, and we will never know what they may have done. What is verifiable is that the military-backed government that replaced them has left even less room for dissent.
Writing in April 2013, the New Yorker’s Peter Hessler presciently observed that Morsi and the Brotherhood were “much weaker than most people realize.” The army, courts and police viewed Morsi warily. It was unlikely he could have ever carried out a crackdown with the force of Mubarak.
“[Mubarak] had the power of a true dictator, and his censorship was absolute; a show like Youssef’s would have been unimaginable in the first place. It’s important to remember this, and to recognize the difference,” Hessler wrote.
In Sisi’s Egypt, that is no longer the case.
"Bassem Youssef's show was not above criticism — but performed an important function and valuable role that was hitherto absent in the Egyptian media sphere,” H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow with the Brookings Institute, and previously an advisor on another Youssef project, said. “It's departure signals many things, but two things in particular: why are there so many who feel so threatened by political satire that they would put such pressure on his show and MBC? And now that his show has ended, what kind of effect will that have on pushing the envelope in Egypt?"