Bassem Youssef’s Satire in Exile
By the summer of 2011, Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian surgeon-turned-satirist, had gained a considerable online following among a newly internet-obsessed Egyptian public. In February, vice-president Omar Suliman had announced that President Hosni Mubarak would resign after a thirty-year tenure and two weeks of public demonstrations all across the country. Less than a month later, Youssef uploaded the first episode of his YouTube series, B+/Bassem Youssef Show, where his project of satirizing the media began. The short YouTube series openly engaged with the coverage of the demonstrations and protesters in Tahrir Square by state media. By his the time of his expulsion from Egypt in 2014, Youssef had gained international notoriety as the “ Jon Stewart of Egypt”, surviving several interruptions under three different regimes until El-Sisi’s electoral victory. And though Youssef’s popularity has since waned, his trajectory and eventual removal exemplify El-Sisi’s aggressive policies towards political dissent.
Laughter as Resistance
Youssef’s first video, which he filmed in his laundry room, and edited and produced himself along with a few close friends, used footage of celebrities featured on national television, pleading with protesters to go home and with the government to force them if need be. Some had even gone as far as suggesting cutting off food and water supplies and shooting cannonballs into the air. Public figures perpetrated rumors of sexual promiscuity, foreign sponsorship, and free KFC meals in the Square, to which Bassem quips, “if you don’t want people rushing to the Square, don’t mention the free KFC.”
Filmed as an amateur project in front of a collage of pictures from Tahrir Square, the show’s production was modest. The show did little more than offer montages of media clips and Youssef’s witty commentary. In each of his short episodes, Youssef focused on a single public figure, ranging from actors to athletes to journalists, discussing the radical changes in the positions many had taken. Praise for Mubarak and his legacy had changed rapidly to apparent relief at his removal and pride in the youth of the January 25th Revolution. Like the Egyptian public, Youssef was watching these radical changes in media discourse as they unfolded, and from his laundry room, he gave voice to the thoughts and concerns or many ordinary Egyptians. In less than two months, Youssef—originally a practicing cardiac surgeon with no background in Egyptian media or politics—had gained 5 million views on his YouTube channel. With only eight episodes online, the size of his following presented the first such breakthrough in the Arab world and by an Arab creator. And his audience continued to grow further, Youssef remained committed to providing a platform for commenting on the news and for reflecting the people’s opinions and anxieties, and his rapidly growing popularity meant he was effective.
During the Ramadan that followed the outbreak of the revolution, which fell in August, Bassem appeared for the first time on a mainstream Egyptian television channel. His show was then El-Bernameg? (trans.: The Show? or The Programme?), airing daily on ONTV. It was for the most part just Youssef on a desk, commenting on social and political events, usually accompanied by a side video to provide visual context. Not unlike The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, the visuals were usually authentic segments from Egyptian or other Arabic media. The second half of the episode would be an interview with a prominent guest, usually a journalist or entertainer. In the very first episode on ONTV, Bassem introduced himself and his show to the Egyptian public, explaining:
We named it El-Bernameg because we couldn’t find a better name. Or a worse name. I’m not even a presenter or a journalist: I’m just a viewer in front of the camera… Unfortunately, they make anyone who does anything on the internet make a show.
From El-Bernameg’s inception, Youssef identified himself as an ordinary Egyptian: witnessing major political events as they happen, distinct from political and media elites. In his self-deprecatory humor, however, a critique of the media industry was always present. By claiming that “they make anyone […] make a show,” he discredits the cohort of established media personalities that survived the Mubarak regime and the January 25th Revolution.
In June 2012, Egypt saw the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood to the presidency via Mohammed Morsi. Five months later, after a successful run on ONTV, El-Bernameg moved to CBC, where it became the first show in the Middle East with a live audience. This transition marked the beginning of Youssef’s political trouble. After just one episode on CBC, Youssef was publicly threatened with a libel lawsuit by a fellow CBC presenter. Over the next year, El-Bernameg was interrupted on air multiple times and Youssef was investigated by the Public Prosecutor for his criticism of President Morsi.
Morsi’s tenure lasted a little over a year, eventually ending with his removal by the military following a wave of public protest in July 2013. El-Bernameg, meanwhile, removed from the CBC network, found its final stop on MBC Misr in early 2014, where it ran for a few episodes before Youssef announced the show was coming to an end. The press conference came a week after Abdel-Fatah El-Sisi—the face of the anti-Brotherhood coup—was announced as Egypt’s first democratically elected president in an election where only 47.5% of eligible voters had cast their vote, according to state reports.
In July 4th 2014, instead of its weekly El-Bernameg episode, MBC aired a press conference. Youssef explained:
This is not the episode … we prepared the episode, and even then, we knew it wouldn’t be filmed, and that it probably wouldn’t ever air. Basically, the ban came before the censorship authorities even saw what is in the episode, and that means the problem isn’t with the content. The problem is in the program itself. In its current form, El-Bernameg won’t be allowed to continue on MBC or any other Egyptian or Arab network.
When asked by a journalist to clarify the circumstances of his resignation, and to act appropriately as a “revolutionary,” he challenged the journalist to re-evaluate his expectations, asserting that “if any of us or our families die, all you would do is write our names in the papers.”
The season premiere of El-Bernameg’s third and final season, not unlike earlier premieres, centralized the tension between commitment to relevance and anxiety over censorship, a tension inherent to the satirical project. The opening skit shows Youssef approaching a shadowed executive producer, representing both corporate media interests and the masked government censor. Youssef, who had worked on rewriting and revising his project, approaches the Executive with new ideas for a permissible show, something viable and noncontentious enough to remain on the air and to allow them to “eat bread.”
The Executive’s primary interest, however, is to produce an “inconspicuous” show, a show that avoids censorship by ignoring politics altogether. The pair brainstorm ideas for this new program, entertaining ideas of a cooking show, a horoscope and dream divination show, and a sports commentary show. All these ideas are scrapped, however, because the political invariably emerges. The language of the cooking show invokes sexual images, potentially offending censors and the public; in front of a crystal ball, Youssef receives a call from a woman asking for his predictions about the presidential candidates; and while watching a game playback reel, he is not allowed to discuss the performance of the Army Vanguard team because the Army is beyond reproach. Politics is inevitable, permeating into seemingly apolitical spheres. Its avoidance therefore requires a deliberate effort, and Youssef’s supposedly apolitical cultural production appears to be blatantly contrived.
The Executive then wonders whether “inconspicuousness” might be better achieved through humor. He suggests “a program to be, firstly, comedic, and secondly, to make people laugh”:
“What would you think if we made it satirical?”, asks Bassem;“As long as it doesn’t affect people’s laughter, go ahead… It would be great if you also made it funny, non-objective and non-impartial, and if its events were fictitious and had no relation to reality.”
The Executive’s suggestion, on the one hand, signifies a sense of inevitability to Youssef’s satirical project. After investigating multiple alternatives, they realize that politics is unavoidable, and therefore—at least in Egypt—so is state censorship. Satire appears less threatening to the authorities only because of the laughter it provokes. Yet on the other hand, the scene reflects a careful deliberative process that reaffirms Youssef’s commitment to political dialogue. Politics may permeate Egyptian life, but Youssef’s satire commits to confronting it by creating an accessible and relevant cultural project.
The Ring Dance
Youssef’s commitment brings to mind Milan Kundera’s image of the “ring dance” in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: a scene in which the narrator is participating in a circular dance formation until, “one day I said something I should not have said, and was expelled from the party.” Kundera has written that this image captures the intentionality behind satire. Truly threatening satire, revolutionary satire, begins from within the collective: it must begin the center of the ring dance, before it faces the threat of expulsion. Kundera’s expulsion from the circle, from his position in the party and his profession as a writer, is a reconfiguration of relations between the state and its citizens and among citizens themselves. Kundera continues:
This when I understood the magical meaning of the circle. If you go away from a row, you canstill come back into it. A row is an open formation, but a circle closes up, and if you go away from it, there is now way back… Like a meteorite broken off from a planet, I left the circle and have not yet stopped falling. Some people are granted their death as they are whirling around, and others are smashed at the end of their fall. And these others (I am one of them) always retain a kind of faint yearning for that lost ring dance.
Kundera proposes two configurations of citizens’ bodies: a political configuration and a social configuration. The state-citizen is a uniform row, where the individual faces forward (presumably towards a leader or a state figure) and is disposable. One could easily replace the other, like cogs in a machine, and the formation continues to function smoothly. Yet a more intricate and fluid formation exists in the social realm, among citizens themselves. Whereas the row of political order is stale and rigid to allow easy repair, the social or collective domain evolves, rejecting undesirable actors and adapting after their removal, creating unique new formations where the expelled individual cannot return. The ring dance continues without replacing its former participants, forgetting about them. As Kundera articulates, expulsion from the circle can take brutal forms. The expelled are likely to face their death after they are removed from the circle, and those who survive, like Kundera, yearn to return to the circle, to join the collective once again.
When Abdel Fattah El-Sisi came to power in 2013, bolstered by an extensive propaganda machine and decades-old popular loyalty to the Army, Bassem Youssef was permanently barred from the air and chased out of Egypt, also facing a million-pound lawsuit from his former employers. Like Kundera, he became a dissident in exile. But Youssef’s exile was not only from the political formation, but from the social ring dance. “You can be an exile in your own home,” he said in a 2017 lecture, explaining isolation from his friends and family who ardently supported El-Sisi and found El-Bernameg to have outlived its purpose, to have suddenly become a destructive force against the progress El-Sisi promised.
Youssef, therefore found himself expelled from the collective, both by some of his audiences from within the collective and by the state from outside through censorship and prosecution. Meanwhile, his reputation as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” has earned him opportunities to tour the US and lecture on the difficulties of maintaining democracies. His 2016 English-language project, “Democracy Handbook”, reckoned with the prospects of a Trump presidency and reflected on life as an Arab America. Like Kundera, he found a new tongue, now that he is fully minoritized, fully removed from the collective. One can only speculate about their efficacy in rejoining the circles from which they have diverged, especially under the watchful eye of the state.
Since his rise to power, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has engaged in an extensive program of suppressing dissidents and political activists, many of whom had initially supported him against the Muslim Brotherhood. The latest of El-Sisi’s high-profile critics were actors Amr Waked and Kal Naga, whose international appeal and political activism landed them a bi-partisan meeting with several members of the United States Congress on the state of freedoms in transitioning democracies. Once news of the meeting reached Egyptian platforms, it raised equal cries of outrage and support. For the actors’ supporters, the “revolution” is still a work in progress, hijacked by El-Sisi and the military. Waked and Naga were both active in the 2011 uprisings, and remain involved in activism to this day. For their opponents and the state-controlled media, Waked and Naga were guilty of treason, misrepresenting Egyptian political life and threatening the stability of Egypt-US relations—and as a result, billions in American aid. The two actors’ actions were soon publicly disavowed and promptly expelled from the Egyptian Actors’ Guild. Among their strongest supporters was Bassem Youssef. Though forced into exile, it appears Youssef has found a place in a new circle of Egyptian dissident entertainers.
Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim via Wikimedia Commons, “Dr. Bassem Youssef: The Egyptian equivalent of John Stewart“, CC BY 2.0