If you watch any of the English-subtitled videos of Bassem Youssef, you get the distinct feeling that his TV show “AlBernameg” is the Middle Eastern equivalent of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. This is by no means a coincidence, because Youssef, an Egyptian satirist, modelled his show after the American comedian’s. In fact, Youssef has even been on Stewart’s show before. But unlike Stewart, Youssef does not live in a country where free speech is a constitutional right. That’s why he is now at threat of being prosecuted for insulting the highest authority in the country.
The man on the pillow, President Morsi, is apparently tired of having a vocal critic in his midsts. This makes sense when you consider the quote I mentioned in an earlier article on satire in the Middle East, from fellow Egyptian satirist Lenin el-Ramly:
“There are four subjects that we can’t touch on. [ . . .] Sex, the president, religion and social values. In other words, it’s not permitted to write directly about them, but you can touch on them in satire.”
Well that’s exactly what Youssef has been touching on in his satirical show, but he annoyed the worst man in the country to annoy; the president.
Until 2011, when the Egyptian uprising occured, the way people would make fun of the president – which was Hosni Mubarak at the time – would be more covert. People called him “The Laughing Cow” in cafes and in SMS messages, because he apparently looks like the mascot of the processed cheese brand. You can be the judge on their resemblance for yourself…
But things changed after the uprising began, because people started putting up posters and banners in Tahrir Square that mocked Mubarak as much and as overtly as possible. That was when a humble cardiologist who loved to watch the Daily Show with Jon Stewart decided that it was time to change career paths. The cardiologist, Youssef, decided it was time to start his own show. Since he had no budget, he did what every other burgeoning star does nowadays… he took to YouTube.
Soon after, he got a TV deal because of the show’s popularity, and the show became Egypt’s first with a live audience. He didn’t completely leave medicine, though. He now raises funds for medical procedures at the place he used to work, so that he can help others save lives. But according to the authorities, he’s up to no good. As BrietBart reports:
A provision in the new Islamist-supported Egyptian constitution allows President Mohamed Morsi to prosecute critics and those who insult government officials.
As a result, satirist Bassem Youssef is being investigated by Egyptian prosecutors after being ”accused of undermining [President Morsi's] standing” via the use of satire. And one of the “leading independent newspapers” in Egypt claims it is also being investigated because Morsi accused it of “publishing false news.”
As Yahoo points out:
He’s just the latest public figure to be targeted, with Islamist lawyers bringing a string of lawsuits against government critics for the crime of “defamation” or threatening national “stability.” Ramadan Abdel Hamid al-Oksory, the Islamist lawyer who filed the initial complaint against Youssef, also started proceedings against Coptic Christian tycoon Naquib Sawiris last year for “insulting Islam.”
In Egypt, almost anyone can make a legal complaint against private and public figures for insulting religion or individuals, whether or not they have personal standing in the matter. The new Egyptian constitution outlaws, specifically, both defaming religion and “insulting” individuals. But it’s up to the general prosecutor to decide whether investigations will go forward. Mr. Abdallah, a Morsi appointee, has been inclined to accept such cases. With the broad, vaguely defined articles in the constitution, convictions that stick are a real threat for the targets.
It’s clear that many of the freedoms that Egyptians were supposed to be able to enjoy from the revolution are being jeopardized by the authorities. This could create a chilling effect that would silence not just satirists and comedians, but critics of any kind. If constitution makes it even easier to prosecute such critics – which seems to be the case – who knows how the people will react?
I know for some people it will be hard to imagine what all of the fuss is about, but you can see the caliber of dissent for yourself, in this fully subtitled video of his program. You may not understand all the Egyptian pop-culture references, but if you understand it like I did then you’ll laugh out of your seat.
[April 6 Update: Bassem Youssef was recently detained and questioned after doing what he does all the time - making fun of the authorities. But after a very short stint in detention, he has already come back to his show and is still going strong.]