'Egypt's Jon Stewart' in Exile
Bassem Youssef's comedy news show had 30 million viewers. Then he was forced to flee.
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 Show frontman 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.
Reason: What inspired you to start The Show?
Bassem Youssef: What really inspired me was the discrepancy between what you saw in the street and what you saw on television. There was a very deliberate method of brainwashing and fooling the public and giving them alternative facts or fake news. And that angered me. I wanted to do something about it. So I started these shows in my laundry room. I didn't think it would mean anything or go anywhere. But a few weeks later I was signing my first TV deal.
You're often called the Jon Stewart of Egypt. But Jon Stewart reached 2 million people. You reached 30 million.
It's not a question of numbers. He really has a lot of competition. [In America] you have a saturated medium, a huge industry. When we did it, we were the only ones. I think the value that Jon Stewart left [is that he] inspired millions of people, not just in the United States but outside, to follow in his footsteps.
About 18 months after you started The Show, you criticized then-President Mohamed Morsi and a warrant was issued for your arrest.
They have to [claim] you are insulting certain sacred ideologies, whether religion or military. It's the same thing that the Muslim Brotherhood did, and the military did later. They want to divert the attention of me criticizing someone's policy [by saying I'm] insulting the faith, or our troops.
You describe in your book this really amazing sketch where you satirized Morsi's enormous, peculiar hat.
Yeah. And it's like, it's just a hat. People are too sensitive. I didn't call him names. I didn't talk about his family. It's just like how the Islamists react in a violent way, because they're not used to being criticized, so to kind of break that mold and make fun of them—they couldn't handle it.
So you showed up at the courthouse wearing a comically oversized hat.
I was spiting them.
But you describe how you went in and the police officers and court employees and prosecutor's employees were asking to take selfies with you.
At the end of the day, I was a TV joker. I was a comedian. People were watching me. Even people who hated me watched, because it was entertaining. It was almost surreal to be in a place where I am being questioned while the people who are in charge of questioning me are fans and taking pictures.
After the military coup led by Sisi—I guess we can call it a coup now; I know you took great pains to explain that that word was not allowed.
Oh, yeah. That was the c word.
So after the coup, there was martial law and you couldn't broadcast for a couple of months. And even your staff were fighting with their parents about whether they should continue to do The Show now that the military was in power, which, at least among the older generation, is this widely respected institution in Egypt. How did you find the inspiration to keep making fun of them?
Well, part of me was scared to come back [on the air]. Like, how can we make fun of the new regime? I mean, the army is popular. It's part of our culture. I mention in the book that people would consider the army even more sacred than religion. And I almost made the decision of stopping The Show, but there were all of these people behind me and I couldn't. I discovered, when I was speaking to Jon [Stewart], that I was afraid of losing my popularity. And Jon said, "Well, my friend, this is true courage."
What happened after you came back?
It took only one episode to be stopped. And then we tried for four months to find another network. Within this period, there was a character assassination that was happening against me in all of the newspapers that had been praising me a few weeks ago. It was interesting to see the flip.
You even had your station manager telling you to tone it down—to do a variety show more like Jimmy Fallon.
Yeah. Just do it like that and forget about policy. I refused, and that was the end of The Show.
Yours was one of the first live television shows with a studio audience in the region, right? Other shows may have had audiences, but they told people when to clap—it was all scripted. You didn't do any of that, and yet you got these huge laughs because it was catharsis, right?
It was genuine. We respected the people that came to the theater and wanted to make them laugh. When you have freedom, you get the freedom to do political satire and the freedom of so many things. So many talents were budding everywhere, and then it was just taken away.
What happened that caused you to ultimately have to flee Egypt?
Well, The Show stopped in April. The pressure was indirect. It was not against us, it was against the channels, and they said we cannot host you anymore.
In these regimes they don't have to go and take you from your house into prison. They will put someone else in the front—lawsuits and legal verdicts that [aren't for any purpose] other than to cripple you. I had an arbitration case with my previous channel, the one that stopped me, and I was slammed with the biggest fine in the history of Egyptian entertainment: 100 million Egyptian pounds. Never before we've seen that kind of figure. And they knew that I didn't have the money. They knew that the next day I would be in jail [and] the next day I would be on the no-fly list. So I escaped before that happened.
You were assigned a government intelligence agency liaison. And that person said to you, "We're not going to direct your programming." What did that mean?
When you have the regime, represented by the intelligence agency, coming to speak to you, that is scary in itself. So when they tell you we are keeping an eye on you…
"I was a TV joker. I was a comedian.…Even people who hated me watched, because it was entertaining. [When I was arrested] it was almost surreal to be in a place where I am being questioned while the people who are in charge of questioning me are fans and taking pictures."
When your show was on the air, you were doing it under this very real threat of physical violence, of arrest, of censorship. It's amazing to me that you soldiered on when the Islamists were in power and then the military. How did you decide when to just be like, "Screw it, I'm going for it," and when it was too sensitive?
Well, it's a learning curve. You don't know for real. There's stuff now that I say that I wouldn't have said three years ago. Just two days ago, I went on a huge outrage on my Facebook account in Arabic and used language that I never thought I would have said. And it's been shared all over the place. It has 50,000 likes in 24 hours. For the first time, actually, I called the military and Sisi straight-out traitors. Because they are just giving away our land for money [a reference to Sisi transferring two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia], which is horrible. This is not an army, just a bunch of people in military uniform who are holding the whole country at gunpoint.
So what I say and what I don't say truly depends on the circumstances, what people are affected, and the stage of my life.
In the American media at the time of the coup, it was widely reported that the Egyptian military was revered. You talk about how that's sort of true, but there's a generational gap, right?
Yes. The problem with the American media when they look at what happened in Egypt is that they think the military leadership is a good alternative to the Islamists. [In reality] one of them leads to the other. Both are two sides of the coin. If the West is championing values like freedom of expression, neither of them are the ones to do it. At the end of the day, the military is, in itself, a right-wing conservative force. They will make sure that there is absolutely no kind of discussion of real ideas about religion, because if you question religion today, you're gonna question me as a military leader tomorrow. They're the guardian of religion, just like the Islamists.
When Sisi was running his non-campaign campaign for president, they trotted out this machine called the "complete cure device," which they said could cure Hepatitis C…
And AIDS. And cancer. And everything.
Diabetes. Everything. And you even had people on your staff who were saying, "We shouldn't criticize this, because if the military says it, it must be true." People who are otherwise very intelligent can become credulous and believe things because of the context or who is in power.
Yeah. This complete cure device was a perfect example of how people, regardless of their education, can just fall into ideologies. Facts don't matter anymore. People ask me, "How do we reach people who have these crazy right-wing ideas?" You won't, because they don't care about the truth. If your ideology is Islamist or pro-military, it will not change. If you question the ideology based on these facts, everything that you have amassed in your mind and accumulated as a belief will come crumbling down. And nobody is ready to lose their faith.
And Sisi is basically portrayed like a deity, right? His face is on everything.
"The most important value of satire is that it humanizes people in power, so you can stand against them."
But you write that that was a point where you really questioned what you were doing, because the military had set a deadline that in a few months this magical machine was going to cure everybody of Hepatitis C. And you were reminding your viewers on every show, hey, this deadline is coming up. If they don't meet it, we should hold them accountable. And then it just kind of went away. All the talking heads stopped talking about it.
As a matter of fact, this story tells you what satire cannot do. It cannot make people stand and do things. The Show was taken off the air. Did people do anything? No. We reminded people of all of the stupidity that the regime did, and now the regime is handing over a piece of land to another country, and the people are just sitting around and not doing anything. The limit of the satirist or the comedian stops at the edge of the television. If the people are not willing to do anything, they won't.
Of course, there are people who are willing to do something—a lot. But they end up in jail, or they end up killed. And that might be, sometimes, enough to make other people scared. I mean, look at me. I'm not brave. I left. I escaped. I feared for my life.
Can satire ever change things?
It can change things in an environment that is ready to change. The most important value of satire is that it humanizes people in power, so you can stand against them. We did this under the Islamists—anybody [who supported] Muslim rule was considered holy. We broke that down. We tried doing that to the military, but we didn't have time. But now it's been three years, and everybody can see what kind of a phony the military leadership is. So it was already done. A lot of people now think that Sisi is a horrible leader. The next step is to get rid of him, [but] they cannot get rid of him. Not because of a lack of satire, but because the system itself is oppressive.
Have there been any sort of structural changes in Egypt?
Propaganda is very short-lived, especially in the time of the internet. You can't really fool the people for long. You promise people and the promises don't come through. They're running out of excuses.
Some of my friends there say the main difference is that before the revolution, people had kind of given up and had no hope, whereas people now are actually talking about politics. Do you find that to be true?
Under [former President Hosni] Mubarak, there was more of a stagnation. But now there is a meltdown. A meltdown of the political, the social structure, the economy. It's a huge thing. They are failing big-time and I don't know how long this can continue. People talk about a "next revolution." I don't know if there's going to be a next revolution or a total destruction. Because we have seen the prequel in Syria. When that regime was threatened, they destroyed the whole country to stay in power. And I don't think those people are different [from the leadership in Egypt].
What do you think is the most fundamental mistake that our media and politicians make about Egypt or the broader Arab world?
They think a military partner is better than an Islamist. Again, both of them are horrible. And second of all, I think that any president comes [into power in America] for four years. And after two and a half years, they start campaigning. They don't want to make any real changes, because they don't want to disturb their presidency. Maybe in the eighth year they start to look at the Middle East and try to make a difference. So it's never going to change.
You point out that the regimes like to opportunistically blame America for a lot of things. If you talk to people in Egypt, they'll sort of reflexively say that they hate America. But at the same time, they're watching Breaking Bad, they're on PornHub, right?
Wait, is PornHub American?
I actually don't know.
I don't know. I think porn is universal. America cannot take credit for that.
I'm not trying to take credit for PornHub.
You can't. No, they look at the biggest one who is protecting Israel, right, left, and center, and they see America. So this automatically translates into, "Oh, America is helping our enemies, so we should hate their policies." But don't you have a lot of Americans who hate the American government's policies and still live here and enjoy their lives?
You talk about Shariah law and some of the misconceptions around that. In the U.S. it's frequently invoked, usually on the right, to say things like, "They're trying to bring Shariah law to Michigan." And even on the left, people like Bill Maher will say things like, "There's no such thing as a moderate Muslim." You look at surveys and 70 percent do think we should live under Shariah law. So why is that view wrong?
First of all, I'm not a big fan of Shariah in the constitution. I think whatever constitution we have should be secular. But also, you need to understand what this word means. A lot of people will say, "We want to live under Shariah," because they think of it as stuff related to marriage or inheritance. This is all under Shariah. Or that we should tell our children that they shouldn't eat pork.
Of course, there are other things people say are part of Shariah, [such as that you should] kill someone who changes their religion. But how many countries in the world other than Saudi Arabia are doing that? And they all have Shariah in their constitutions. It's a very slippery-slope thing when it comes to Islamic countries, because if you have Shariah as an integral part of the constitution, there is a potential for abuse. So yes, it is a big problem there, but here, when you see people saying they want Shariah, you need to understand what they mean.
I don't know the answer. Maybe 70 percent want to behead people and cut off their arms.
Do you think it's similar to the way that a lot of religious political factions here will say that America is built on Judeo-Christian values?
But there's a huge difference. You have a constitution that says there is a separation between church and state. You could believe in whatever principles you want, you can be as religious as you want, but anybody who doesn't share the same beliefs as you should be allowed to express themselves and have the same rights. That's what's missing from countries that have Shariah in their constitutions.
Another argument you hear in the U.S. is that Islam is a political system—it's not a religion, it's an ideology.
Aren't all religions ideologies? In Europe, Christianity was an ideology, and it was a political system too. Religions do not evolve. What happened in Europe between the Dark Ages and now—Christianity didn't evolve. It's the same book. But that book was used to commit atrocities and commit crimes against humanity and commit wars, the same way that Islam is used now. What is different is that the Christian communities evolved. The problem we have in the Islamic world is not the religion [needing to] evolve. It's the community evolving beyond the literal interpretation of certain verses. You can still be Muslims and say, "This book is just going to be spiritual guidance for us." If you're a Muslim, you want to go into politics, welcome. But you have to play on secular rules.
Why do you think that hasn't become a more popular view in Egypt?
Egypt has been ruled by the military for 60 years. And religion is a very strong weapon to keep everybody in check.
Are there a lot of very hardcore people who want to put everybody under that repressive system, or is it a small minority?
It doesn't really matter—you can be a minority, but you can be a very strong minority. The Muslim Brotherhood is just, like, a million people. But they're very organized, and they can spread their ideology very easily. It's not really about the number. The masses will follow whoever is stronger. This is why we need to have a strong secular alternative, which is, unfortunately, not the case right now.
Before the Arab Spring and before you had The Show, you were a heart surgeon and you were desperately trying to leave Egypt, to the point that you were considering accepting a position in Cleveland.
What made you pick the United States?
There's more opportunities in America. In medicine, America is the place to go. If you want to be better at your craft, there's great hospitals here, great programs. This is where many doctors want to come to learn and to improve their skills. Plus I've been in the U.S. many times, and I really like it here.
And now you live in Los Angeles. What's next for you?
Well, I hope to have a place in the American media. Maybe I'll have my own show, a movie, a TV sitcom. Who knows?
How have your expectations about moving here matched up with reality?
In one year, I have a movie out, a book out, I've been on the late night circle. I had a show last year called Democracy Handbook on Fusion. So it's not a bad first year.
Do you have people who recognize you in the United States?
Somewhat. I mean, there's a lot of Arabs here, of course. But also there's a lot of people who have seen me on Samantha Bee, [Stephen] Colbert, Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah.
Do you miss having the throngs of people surrounding you everywhere you go?
Of course it's nice, but I don't like to live in the past. The Show, in Egypt, was something that will retain its place in history. It's a legacy that nobody will be able to take away. Now I'm in a new stage of my life. I'm trying to reinvent myself at the age of 43 in a country that's not mine, in a language that's not mine. So it is interesting and challenging and terrifying.
A lot of our famous comedians—Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock—are saying they don't want to perform on college campuses because people are too easily offended. Do you think they're just whining?
No, but this is different. My backlash was government-driven, authority-driven. What you're having here is a strong feeling of political correctness. To be politically correct is OK, but you really need to be able to take a joke. There's a difference between waging a war against political correctness, like Donald Trump does, and [people not understanding that] if it's comedy, it can be offensive and it's not ill-intentioned.
Would you perform on college campuses?
If they pay me, I would. I don't care.
Over the course of the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring, the heroes have become the villains. So the Islamists come to power and they're aligned with the military, and then the military takes them out and everybody switches places. Do you see a similar thing happening here, where America's political parties don't have a real ideology behind them and it's just tribal warfare?
It is tribal warfare. Truth doesn't matter anymore. It's like: I'm voting for this guy because I hate the other guy. There is absolutely no reason for people to vote for Trump other than they just hate the liberals.
Is it on both sides of the aisle, or do you think the Republicans are more susceptible?
I might sound biased, but at the end of the day, it is the right wing who are waging a war against minorities, against people's orientation, against people's right to choose what they want to do with their bodies. They constrict people's access to information. They interfere with the education system. They're taking away health care. So, yes, maybe there are also authoritarian tendencies on the left, but…maybe the difference is they are more liberal with people's personal liberties, which I think is most important.
"The Show, in Egypt, was something that will retain its place in history. It's a legacy that nobody will be able to take away. Now I'm in a new stage of my life. I'm trying to reinvent myself at the age of 43 in a country that's not mine, in a language that's not mine."
The Democrats are more focused on the civil liberties.
Yes. I mean, both of them bomb the Middle East very effectively, so there's no difference there.
Obama was a great Middle East bomber. It's on his résumé. Do you think that Donald Trump represents a unique authoritarian threat in this country?
It's a threat if the system doesn't hold him back. If the midterms come and there is no tangible change in the Congress and the Senate, that's a problem. He will just do whatever he wants, unchecked.
You were doing The Show during the changing of regimes, and after the military coup, people who formerly were huge fans of yours would say, "Hey, we love you, but don't do this under Sisi. He's different." So they like you when you're on their side, but they don't appreciate that you're making fun of everybody. Do you think that that's true of satire in general?
Absolutely, 100 percent. The Islamists liked me when I didn't make fun of them, and then they hated me afterwards. It's a human thing. If you accept satire, it shows how really liberal and intelligent you are.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and style. For a video version, visit reason.com.