'Egypt's Jon Stewart' in Exile

Bassem Youssef's comedy news show had 30 million viewers. Then he was forced to flee.


Bassem Youssef
Patrick Ryland

Bassem Youssef, known as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, hosted the most popular television show in the history of the Arab world. A heart surgeon by training, he was inspired by the Daily Showfrontman to start a weekly YouTube series in 2011, just as the Arab Spring was getting underway. He taped it from his laundry room.

Called Al-Bernameg, which means The Show, its audience grew to 30 million per episode. The "value of satire," Youssef says, "is that it humanizes people in power"—those "considered holy."

Youssef's downfall began with a viral segment mocking President Mohamed Morsi's hat in 2013. In March, a warrant was issued for his arrest for insulting the president and Islam. So Youssef offered to turn himself in—wearing his Morsi hat. Though he was released on bail, it was the beginning of the end. Three months later, the military deposed and jailed Morsi, dissolved the constitution, and silenced the critical press. General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi became the new ruler of Egypt, and his regime didn't take kindly to mockery.

What followed is the subject of Youssef's new memoir, Revolution for Dummies (HarperCollins), and the documentary Tickling Giants by Daily Show Senior Producer Sara Taksler, which is available online.

The Show lasted just one episode after Sisi became president. Youssef was slapped with the largest fine in the history of Egyptian media. Sensing that he might soon be arrested and prevented from leaving the country, he threw a few personal belongings into a suitcase and rushed to the airport.

This summer, Youssef sat down with Reason's Justin Monticello in Los Angeles, where they discussed political correctness, comedy on college campuses, Donald Trump, the limits of satire, and more.