Bassem Youssef: Confronting Power with Laughter and Ridicule

1“You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time – of anything. If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid.” An elegant an explanation as any of the power of satire, coined by US comedian and television host Stephen Colbert.

In March 2011, Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian cardiac surgeon who had assisted wounded protesters at Tahrir Square, started posting a show on YouTube in order to vent both frustration and anger. In The B+ Show, Mr Youssef exposed the hypocrisy and misinformation prevalent in mainstream Egyptian media and poked fun at politicians and other public figures. Episodes were filmed with a handheld camera; a table in his laundry room served as the set. A mural with Tahrir Square battle pictures served as the backdrop. In the first three months alone, Mr Youssef’s YouTube channel attracted over five million views.

Three years on, Bassem Youssef hosts the political talk show El Bernameg (The Programme) on regular television. The show handles news stories, political figures, media organizations, and all it touches with the same irreverence and humour as The B+ Show did.

Mr Youssef is busy schooling post-Mubarak Egypt in the fine art of irreverence and ridicule toward those in power. He has at his disposal a most impressive arsenal: A viewership regularly numbered in the tens of millions, various newspaper collumns, a twitter feed followed by over two million and a Facebook account boasting some 4.5 million friends.

Stylistically the progamme is very similar to its US counterpart The Daily Show. Even some of Mr Youssef’s mannerisms seem based on Jon Stewart.

Last October, El Bernameg returned to air its third season. In the meantime, an elected president had been deposed. The country was now controlled by the military. The crackdown they orchestrated against the MuslimBrotherhood saw hundreds of people killed.

During the first two seasons of his show, Mr Youssef had been an outspoken critic of the Morsi Administration, and he wasn’t particularlykeen on holding back against the new powers that be. The first episode of season three had Mr Youssef mocking the widespread idolization of Egyptian defense minister Abdul Fatah al-Sisi.

The very next day, CBC, the network that aired El Bernameg, hurriedly released an exculpatory statement. A bit later, CBC cancelled the show alleging a break of contract. However, in February El Bernameg did return for a second crack at its third season, this time on the MBC MASR network.

Satire is the celebration of irreverence. It is irreverence that ultimately keeps democratic leaders in check and topples despots. Comedians like Jon Stewart, and his Comedy Central colleague Stephen Colbert, may be proud of their country’s satirical tradition which they personify and helped export to the troubled Middle East.

Bassem Youssef and Jon Stewart are now close friends and have appeared several times on each other’s shows. Mr Youssef is at the very frontier of funny – an at times dangerous place to be. Since his show first aired, he has been taken to court countless times, mainly for “insult and defamation”. In January 2013 it was widely reported that a public prosecutor was investigating Mr Youssef
on charges of maligning then-president Morsi, whose office claimed that the show was “circulating false news likely to undermine public peace and security.” Later that same year, Mr Youssef was arrested on charges of insulting both Islam and President Morsi. After questioning, he was released on bail.

In 2013, Time Magazine named Bassem Youssef as one of its “100 most influential people in the world”. He had been nominated by
Jon Stewart.

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