No country for funny men

Comedian Bassem Youssef returns to Egypt's fear-gripped media environment

February 26, 2014 9:00AM ET
Supporters of Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi burn a poster with Bassem Youssef's photo bearing a caption that reads, "Not Egypt, you are degrading to the media, fifth column."
Amr Nabil/AP

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef is back on the airwaves. Youssef’s popular show, “Al-Bernameg” — Arabic for “The Program” — went off the air in October at the beginning of its third season after poking fun at Egypt’s army chief and de facto ruler, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Since the July military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, Egypt has grown exceedingly hostile to freedom of speech and the press. As a result, many ordinary Egyptians are now gripped by fear and preoccupied with security, and Egypt’s independent journalists are besieged.

Last week the New York–based press freedom group the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which honored Youssef in 2012 with a press freedom award, declared Egypt the third-deadliest country for the press. At least six journalists were killed in 2013. The CPJ documented more than 70 press freedom violations in the first three months after Morsi was deposed. The military-backed government has since detained 44 journalists without charge, put several bloggers in jail and accused a couple of academics of treason. Most of these individuals, including three Al Jazeera journalists, are locked up simply for not toeing the regime’s line.

Egypt’s increasingly hostile media environment is no place for truth tellers or funny men. Youssef purports to be both. Despite the restrictions on freedom of expression, some fans are rejoicing at the comedian’s return. But they are overly optimistic if they think the old Youssef is back.

Egypt’s Jon Stewart

Youssef, 39, sometimes dubbed Egypt’s Jon Stewart, made his debut on YouTube in March 2011 in the wake of the revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign. Youssef moved his Internet-based show to the politically liberal ONTV network in August 2011, where he continued to skewer Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s inept rule.

In November 2012, in search of a larger audience, Youssef took his show to the Egyptian news and entertainment satellite channel Capital Broadcast Center (CBC), which is owned by allies of the Mubarak regime. In one memorable episode last April, Youssef spoofed a famous Egyptian song, “My Beloved Homeland,” to make fun of Qatar, mocking the oil-rich Gulf emirate for its political support of the Muslim Brotherhood and economic aid to Egypt under Morsi.

Youssef ran afoul of his CBC bosses when he satirized Sissi, who led the coup against Morsi, in the third-season premiere of “Al-Bernameg.” The channel decided to drop the show last October.

The new Youssef, who returned on Feb. 7, 2014, after a four-month absence, appears to be diminished. For one, his audience is much smaller. On ONTV “Al-Bernameg” garnered 8 percent of Egyptian television viewers. CBC boosted the show’s Egyptian viewership to about 30 percent in 2013.

Youssef’s new perch is MBC Masr, a Saudi-owned channel based in Cairo that focuses on Egyptian affairs. According to Jordan-based consultancy Arab Advisors Group, MBC Masr had under 1 percent of viewers last year.

Moreover, MBC Masr is part of the MBC Group, a Dubai-based media conglomerate, owned by a brother-in-law of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. This should give us pause even if we assume that entertainment programs enjoy some editorial freedom from media owners. MBC is known for bringing commercially successful entertainment programs to a pan-Arab audience, which would be good if Youssef wants a bigger audience. But its insistence on avoiding controversy at all costs is likely to constrain him.

In 2004, for example, MBC shut down the Arabic-language version of the global hit reality show “Big Brother” in Bahrain only a week into production, citing the show’s sexually charged atmosphere. It has since steered clear of controversy by avoiding politics, sex and religion in its programming.

Irreverence is essential to satire. Sexual innuendo is a time-honored tool of parody. Concession — or the perception of it — is fatal to political humor. Will Youssef’s no-holds-barred comedy thrive on this channel?

New platforms

The first episode of “Al-Bernameg” on MBC Masr, which aired Feb. 7, 2014, had a whiff of compromise. It poked fun at Egyptians for glorifying Sissi but did not directly criticize military rule. This is an ominous sign both for Youssef and Arab political satire.

Saudi Arabia is to Sissi what Qatar was to Morsi. Skewering Saudi Arabia for its unbending support of Egypt’s military leader would signal that Youssef remains fiercely independent. Even if the Saudis end up not supporting a Sissi presidential bid, they are too vested in Egypt and will remain influential in the country’s politics for some time. Not spoofing the Saudis would mean — or at least give the impression — that the comedian is beholden to the powers that be. Youssef’s self-censorship would also imply that his political ceiling at MBC Masr is lower than it was at ONTV and CBC.

Youssef is not limited to MBC Masr, however. He is eyeing other networks. German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) has obtained the rights to retransmit “Al-Bernameg via satellite to a pan-Arab audience. But Western-sponsored Arabic-language broadcasters that emerged in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — including DW, Russia Today and the U.S. government’s al-Hurra — have a minuscule audience in the Arab world compared with those of any of the major Arab media players such as Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and CBC.

The rebroadcast of “Al-Bernameg” by DW would provide symbolic validation, not significant audience expansion. And it would pose an interesting dilemma for Youssef. A retransmission of “Al-Bernameg” by a European channel that is openly supportive of voices that promote pluralism and democracy in the Arab world is potentially risky. It may open Youssef to accusations of accepting foreign assistance or, worse, of participating in external conspiracies against Egypt.

A jester in Sissi’s court

Ahead of the next presidential election, which may occur this April, there is a growing cult surrounding Sissi. A children’s magazine recently featured his portrait on the cover, and hitherto respected journalists, in both state and independent outlets, have written sycophantic columns about him. Some of the support for Sissi is informed by this climate of fear. But this also signals a return to an authoritarian public sphere where support for the ruler is rewarded and dissent is criminalized.

Youssef’s show is vital for such a constrained environment, and hopefully it will thrive. MBC Masr might be betting on the comedian’s popularity and large following to boost its abysmal ratings.

But MBC Masr is not the right platform for someone with Youssef’s talent. For the time being, he could do much better by having an online-only show. In his much-awaited MBC Masr debut, Youssef sounded circumspect, his humor bridled.

The ultimate question is, when the going gets tough, as it surely will if he stays true to form, will MBC Masr have Youssef’s back?

Marwan M. Kraidy is a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Project for Advanced Research in Global Communication. His latest solo book, “Reality Television and Arab Politics: Contention in Public Life,” won three major awards.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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