BENJAMIN BARTHE| The Guardian
Doctor turned host of popular show provides laughs for his viewers but a headache for the Muslim Brotherhood. Read this story on the Guardian here.
He belongs to no party and has never stood for election, yet 39-year-old satirist Bassem Youssef has immeasurable political influence. He presents Egypt's most popular TV programme, al-Bernameg ("the programme"), which scrutinises the failings of the Islamists and has made him a leading opponent of President Mohamed Morsi and an enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood.
None of Morsi's political adversaries - Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League, or Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or the Nassir-style leftist, Hamdeen Sabahi - can rival Youssef. In this internet era his videos spread like wildfire, and his parodies of the Egyptian president and lampooning of the Islamists' edicts have made him the champion of the liberals and, more broadly, of an Arab world badly in need of political, social and cultural emancipation.
"Buy Ikhwanosol, the insecticide that will rid you of everything that is not Ikhwan [the Muslim Brotherhood]," Youssef joked in reply to a Muslim Brotherhood leader who asserted that members could not marry women outside the movement. In a previous episode he had heaped praise on Qatar, which allegedly finances the Muslim Brotherhood, with a chorus in the background singing "Save us from bankruptcy my dear Qatar" to the tune of Beloved Country, a famous Nasser-era operetta.
"I'm a clown, my work consists of poking fun at power," he explained during a recent trip to Paris for a conference. "Laughter destroys fear and opens the doors of the imagination. It is the strongest weapon for deconstructing an oppressive system." Time Magazine recently included him in its list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Youssef trained as a cardiologist and did not immediately understand the impact of the first street demonstrations in Cairo on 25 January 2011. He waited a few days before joining in and was among the doctors and nurses who helped the wounded during the attack on Tahrir Square by the Mubarak regime's henchmen on 2 February.
His rise to fame came after the revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February. He and a few tech-savvy friends created hilarious parodies of Egyptian state television in his flat, which became an instant hit on YouTube. "After nine episodes I received a job offer from a TV station," he said. "And that very same day I obtained a visa allowing me to work in the United States. I had a job at a paediatric hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. That would have been the job of my life, but I chose TV and up to now I haven't regretted it."
His show is broadcast every Friday at 11pm, Egyptian prime time. Pedestrians hurry home, while in cafes and shopping centres conversation stalls and all eyes turn to the nearest TV set. Temporary halts have even been called in demonstrations to set up a makeshift screen and relay the show for police and protesters alike. Al-Bernameg is broadcast on CBC, a private channel set up during the revolution, and before the show became an instant hit, only the Friday prayers and retransmissions of national football matches were able to silence Cairo, the city that never sleeps.
Youssef is a great admirer of Jon Stewart's satirical Daily Show in the US and al-Bernameg takes its format from that. Egyptian viewers will long remember the episode in March when Youssef mocked Morsi's oratorical skills. Shots of the Egyptian president in Berlin, where in an odd mix of Arabic and English he attempted a ponderous comparison of western and eastern cultures, were cut with Youssef's mimicry. The Egyptian president's statement to a floor of German businessmen, that "El drunk byiruh el sign iza kan driving" (drunken drivers go to prison), was countered by Youssef's, "El liar byiruh el fire" (and liars go to hell), and both have become cult phrases, posted on the social networks as political manifestos by a generation that wants to demystify political and religious power.
The battle is far from won. Since the beginning of the year Youssef has been under attack by Islamist lawyers for insulting Islam and the president. It is not clear if Morsi himself took umbrage or whether his entourage has given instructions to silence the satirist - or at least remind him of the line not to cross. That is the explanation favoured by the liberals who tend to see the hand of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood behind every case brought against the media.
However, the current spate of harassment could also come from the Salafists. Youssef's caricatures tread in dangerous waters. Recently he went to town on a "tele-Qur'angelist" who claimed that the sexual violence plaguing Egypt is the fault of women because they entice the men in the first place, adding that because "women's strongest muscles are their thigh muscles" they can easily prevent rape from occurring. Youssef also finds material for his sketches in these legal skirmishes. He was arrested at the end of March and went to the prosecutor wearing an enormous black hat, an outsize reproduction of the one Morsi wore at a ceremony at the University of Islamabad. He kept his sense of humour throughout his five-hour interrogation and after being released on bail he posted on Twitter: "The police officers and magistrates want to have their photos taken with me. Maybe that's why I was summoned?"
But by breaking taboos and constantly provoking does he not fear for his life? He is evasive about the precautions he takes, but admits that the central Cairo theatre in which his show is recorded every Wednesday is under special surveillance. But he will not be silenced.
By over-exaggerating - to the point of comparing the Islamists to the Nazis - is he not afraid of exacerbating the showdown between Islamists and liberals and paralysing the transition under way? "I attack those in power," he replied. "They have put themselves in that position. We are not trying to exclude them from the political field. We just want them to change and not think they are above us mortals."
In a recent episode, a video shows a Muslim Brotherhood leader declaring, "We are purer than a drop of water." In the next shot, Youssef is drinking from a bottle of mineral water labelled Ikhwan. "That's odd," he says stone-faced, "there's a bit of sand in it." Truly incorrigible.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Mondeguardian.co.uk Â© 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds