Egyptian comedian tests the limits of post-revolution satire

Meet Egypt's Jon Stewart, a former heart surgeon turned late-night TV host whose biting satire has not endeared him to the country's political class. But, as Nahlah Ayed reports, comedian Bassem Youssef may be the revolution's real star.

Comedian Bassem Youssef may be the revolution's real star

Egypt's hot talk show


8 years ago
Bassem Youssef is the force and host of a new, post-revolution political talk show, unthinkable in Egypt just two years ago. Nahlah Ayed interview. 6:33

There are plenty of reasons Egyptian politicians can't stand Bassem Youssef — his takedowns are merciless, his biting jokes are almost always at their expense.

Even more painful is the knowledge that this relative newcomer on the political scene has the kind of influence in post-revolution Egypt they can only dream about.

You needn't actually watch Youssef's weekly, late night show, called al Bernameg (The Program) to get a sense of his head-shaking popularity.

Just look at these statistics: He has more than a million followers on Twitter, more than two million "likes" on Facebook. And an estimated 30 million from across the region watch his show.

Yet in a quiet chat in the intimate theatre where he broadcasts his barbs, he told CBC News that he has no illusions about fame — or any leadership role.

"I'm just someone who tries to make people laugh," he says, utterly serious. "I'm not a demagogue. I'm a very average guy watching the news and trying to put it in my perspective.

"The fact that you are in comedy makes you a little bit more likeable. But put me in politics for seven days, and people will hate me as much as the others."

'Egypt's Jon Stewart'

Despite what he says, Youssef is anything but average.

A heart surgeon by training and trade, he's credited with single-handedly introducing the late-night political satire genre to Egypt's otherwise prolific television and comedy scene.

Under former president Hosni Mubarak — who was rather thin-skinned when it came to the media — a show like Youssef's wouldn't have lasted a day. But the 2011 revolution that unseated Mubarak provided the opening.

Youssef's show attracts upwards of 30 million viewers. (Nahlah Ayed / CBC)

In the revolution that would eventually make him a star, Youssef lent his medical expertise to help wounded protesters, but then he decided to do more beyond attending protests.

"I'm not the chanting type," he says coolly. "But I stayed there to observe."

Inspired by the events, and driven partly by the state media's outrageously misleading coverage of them, Youssef started recording commentary in his own home, which he broadcast on YouTube.

His show was modeled on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. (He's a huge fan and was later even a guest on the show.)

And he quickly became known for saying what so many Egyptians were thinking — and for being hilarious at the same time.

A local network noticed and made an offer. He accepted, and left surgery for satire.

Throwing spitballs

These days, Youssef still watches Stewart for inspiration, and the obvious influence — like his habit of interrupting himself to talk to his producers while he holds a finger to his earpiece — has earned him the title of "the Jon Stewart of Egypt," a comparison in which he basks.

"I might be a little bit of a Jon Stewart fanatic," Youssef admits. "He said we are the people who sit at the back of the bus and throw spitballs at everybody."

But "we can't just offer empty comedy," he says of their shared brand of satire mixed with seriousness.

"We offer context and offer a message. Maybe it's throwing spitballs with some seriousness, throwing spitballs with a straight face," he says with a mischievous smile.

His spitballs know almost no bounds — everyone is fair game, though he has been accused of saving his most biting barbs for the Islamists in power.

In one episode that went viral last year, he put the jokes aside to deliver a pointed, Stewart-like lecture to those Egyptians who would say they are better Muslims than liberals.

It was widely quoted as a deeply satisfying retort to all those who felt judged by the growing Islamist tide here. And in the process, he became a champion of the secular camp in the growing chasm between Islamists and just about everyone else.

In recent months, a favourite target for Youssef and his small team of young writers has been Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president the country narrowly elected last June.

"Yeah well, he is the president, and with great powers comes great responsibility and great sarcasm, that the rule," says Youssef.

One recent segment makes fun of Morsi's English, while another has him embracing Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Lionel Richie's "Hello? Is it me you're looking for?" plays in the background.

Getting sarcasm

One of the funniest of the Morsi shows— in which Youssef repeatedly embraces a soft red pillow with the president's face imprinted on it, all the while insisting Morsi is a comforting presence — earned him a legal complaint and an investigation by the authorities for having possibly insulted the president.

In fact, he says he's currently facing at least a dozen such complaints, though he has not yet been summoned by the public prosecutor.

How these complaints are dealt with will go some way in testing how far freedom of expression has come in post-revolution Egypt.

Have any of these complaints changed his behaviour?

If anything, he says, "we just got even more sarcastic about the president and about everything." He adds that he no longer even takes the advice of legal advisers who are hired to review his material before it hits the air.

"They do this for my own good and they're very sincere, but this is exactly what [some] people want us to do: to back down."

His fans worry about his safety given all that he says — though he claims he has no such fears himself. He does worry though about getting it right in what is a delicate atmosphere.

"When [much] of the material [is] about people killed in the streets, that's not really funny. It's very hard actually to find humour and fun stuff amongst all of this pain and bloodshed."

Youssef has managed to bring some political figures onto his show — including opposition leader Mohammed el Baradei. But will the Egyptian president ever sit in the chair the way U.S. President Barack Obama sat in Stewart's?

"It is my dream actually to have him," he says. "Seriously.

"Some people get sarcasm in a bad way. They think it's about putting your opponent like under the ground, just like BURYING them alive and just like 'yeah!' you killed him, and it's like I really don't want that.

"Actually I will only be successful if I get people who I criticize and I make fun of in the chair because that is success."

Do his detractors watch?

"I'm actually surprised that everybody who curses at me, they actually curse and they know exactly what I've said in the episode. And they comment on everything that I said. It's quite weird," he says.

"Maybe Morsi himself is watching the show and actually having fun. Who knows? I mean I think the guy has a sense of humour, somewhere in him."