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Bassem Youssef: No laughing matter

August 7, 2013

I found an old profile I wrote about Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef. I interviewed him a few months ago, before President Morsi was ousted, so his situation is very different now to what it was then, but here it is.

Rarely does an Egyptian heart surgeon get named one of the 100 ‘Most Influential People in the World’. But when Dr. Bassem Youssef made TIME magazine’s annual list last month it was hardly a surprise, though it wasn’t his medical prowess that earned him the accolade.

In fact, Youssef, 39, hasn’t operated in over a year: he’s been too busy hosting Egypt’s most popular television show al-Bernameg, a weekly satirical news programme right at the centre of the battle over free speech in a country struggling to determine its post-revolution identity.

Every Friday at 11pm, 30 million people across Egypt sit down to enjoy a strong dose of sarcasm, slapstick and the odd song, as Youssef mocks the Morsi presidency and rails against conservative Islamists whom he says distort religion.

“After a revolution everybody talks about politics, but if you talk about it in a humorous way, people will listen more,” Youssef says, sitting in his office above the theatre in downtown Cairo where his show is filmed.

If not the original YouTube star, Youssef is certainly the most important. Dismayed by the state-run media coverage of the January 2011 uprising, he began posting satirical sketches filmed at his apartment with one camera, on the video-sharing website.

Within three months he had 5 million hits, and quickly got his first television show. Now he has a big production team including 30 researchers who comb the TV news channels to find material ripe for mocking.

“It happened very fast, I didn’t plan for all of this,” Youssef admits. He consciously styles his programme on the popular American political satire show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, because “it’s very fast, it’s very hip, it’s very funny,” he explains.

But whereas Stewart takes his potshots at politicians and the right-wing media from within the safety of a stable democracy where the First Amendment is sacrosanct, in Egypt Youssef is not so much testing as bombarding the boundaries of free speech, in a country with a constitution ambiguous about its very meaning, and one unused to mocking its leaders.

It hasn’t been without consequences. Last month he was arrested for among other things, insulting president Morsi. It sparked international uproar, but he doesn’t believe his fame protects him much more than lesser-known journalists and activists, of whom increasing numbers have been imprisoned under archaic laws and ‘contempt of Islam’ charges.

“I don’t count on international support. People write international headlines about me today, but what if they go after me tomorrow, and they do it again and again and again? The international media will get bored,” he says despondently.

New complaints are regularly filed against him, and he is waiting to be summoned for questioning again. “They’ve accused me of promoting homosexuality, of spreading rumours, of insulting the President, of insulting Islam. They will use everything to alienate me in front of the people,” he says.

“They” are the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned prosecutors, and conservative Islamic commentators who often appear on cable programmes slamming, and sometimes threatening, Youssef and his ilk. One example is when he and his audience were described as “a bunch of gays and hermaphrodites” by the lawyer Nabih el-Wahsh, a regular guest on Salafi networks.

Youssef describes these men as “political merchants, political opportunists.” On one episode, to cheers from his audience of liberals, socialists and those who feel marginalised by the Islamist-dominated politics, he directly addressed his critics:

“To those who tell me, ‘You insult the sheikhs and scholars,’ I say, ‘The equation is very simple, just like you don’t consider us Muslims, we don’t consider you sheikhs and scholars.”

A devout Muslim, Youssef says a common misconception in the West is that Egypt is in a struggle between Islamists and secularists. “It’s not. It’s a struggle between people using religion for politics and people refusing to let religion get involved in politics.”

Youssef admits he has become a linchpin of hope for those disenchanted with a largely incompetent, fractured political opposition to the regime, though it makes him deeply uncomfortable.

“I can’t solve the opposition’s problems. It’s a freaking TV show, I can’t bare the responsibility of everybody else’s failure. They need to get their shit together.”

“At the end of the day people want you do everything for them.  They want you to be the opposition, they want you to be the guy who insults the president, they want you to be the funniest person on earth, they want you to have the best show ever. That’s too much pressure!”

The personal toll of being the focus of so much disdain and adoration is evident. His hair has become significantly greyer in recent months and he apologises for being quiet and slightly irritable. “I’m sorry. It’s the beginning of the week so I’m a little bit down because I’m stressed about the show.”

“If you met me three years ago I would actually be much more funny in person. Now…I put all the ‘funny’ in the programme.”

The workload involved in delivering a quality episode each week means he rarely sees his wife and infant daughter, sleeps only four hours a night, sometimes at the theatre, and despite it being mid-afternoon, he’s only just started eating his breakfast.

Bassem Youssef’s fate could be described as a litmus test for free speech in the newly democratic Egypt. So far, he is a success, but an incredibly fragile one. He has managed to walk a very fine line, but one wrong move and he could find himself off the air or in jail. He won’t insult religion for its own sake, and sex is definitely off-limits.

But he is also a comedian whose main goal is to entertain people at a time of grave economic hardship and political instability.

“We’re trying to do something in a very difficult situation, in a country that there’s not really much to laugh about,” he says. “It’s mostly really sad every day. So trying to extract a smile out of people is a heroic job.”

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