Bassem Youssef, known as the "Jon Stewart of Egypt," was the host of 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 show in 2011, just as the Egyptian revolution and Arab Spring were 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 is that it humanizes people in power," Youssef tells Reason's Justin Monticello, 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.
The Show lasted just one airing after Sisi became president. Youssef was slapped with the largest fine in the history of Egyptian media. Sensing that he would soon be arrested and prevented from traveling out of the country, he threw a few personal belongings into a suitcase and rushed to the airport.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Youssef discusses the limits of satire, political correctness, comedy on college campuses, Trump, how political leaders use religion, and more.
This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Bassem Youssef: The Islamists were reacting in a violent way because they're not used that they're … They are hiding behind this sacred ideology of religion and they're not used to be criticized, so to break that mold and to just be pointed at them and make fun of them. They couldn't handle it.
Justin Monticello: You went in and police officers and court employees, or the prosecutor's employees were asking to take selfies with you and they were big fans of yours.
Youssef: It was almost surreal to be in a place where I'm being questioned while the people who are in charge of questioning me were securing … Questioning me were fans and taking pictures.
Monticello: So, after the military coup … I guess we can call it a coup now. I know you took great pains to talk about how it was a word that was not allowed in Egypt for a time, right?
Youssef: Oh yeah, that was the "c" word.
Monticello: There was marshal law, and you couldn't broadcast for a couple months. Even your staff, they were fighting with their parents about whether they should continue to do the show now that the military was in power. In moments like that, where you were confronting these new regimes that kept popping up during the revolution, how did you decide when it was too dangerous? How did you find the inspiration to keep going on and making fun of them?
Youssef: Well, part of me was scared to come back. I was scared of … How can we make fun of the new regime because the new regime was very popular. You can say whatever you want about the regime, but Sisi was popular, the regime, their army is popular. It's part of our culture. And I mentioned in the book how people would consider the armies even more sacred than religion. I almost took the decision of stopping the show, but there were all of these people behind me, and I couldn't stop. I know that I would lose my popularity with a huge amount of people. And then John said, "Well, my friend, this is true courage." I know I went … We would just … We did the same thing with the regime and that lasted a few weeks, and we were done.
Monticello: How did you ultimately have … Get censored and have to flee Egypt? What happened there?
Youssef: These regimes, they don't have to go and take you from your house into a prison. They would have to make something else, put someone else in the front. So lawsuits, and legal verdicts, that doesn't really mean anything other than to cripple you. So I had an arbitration case with my previous channel, one that stopped me and I was slammed with the biggest fine in the history of Egyptian entertainment, a hundred million pounds. Never before we've seen that kind of figure, and I knew that they would not … they know that I didn't have the money. They were coming at me. They knew the next day I would be in jail. The next day I will be on the no fly list. So I escaped before that happened.
Monticello: One particularly poignant episode that you talk about is the fact that the military, during the … I guess, When Sisi was campaigning for president, running his non-campaign campaign, that they trotted out this device that's called the complete cure device, which they said could cure Hepatitis C and AIDS …
Youssef: And everything. And cancer.
Monticello: Diabetes. Like everything, right? And it's interesting because 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."
Monticello: You write that that was a point that you really questioned what you were doing because the military set this deadline that in a few months, this machine was going to cure everybody of Hepatitis C. And so you would remind people, "Hey, this deadline is coming up. If they don't meet the deadline we should hold them accountable or there should be some explanation." And then it just kind of went away and all the talking heads stopped talking about it. So, what does that tell you about the nature of satire? Where do you think it can have a big impact if it, like you're saying you can't…
Youssef: As a matter of fact, the story that you just mentioned can tell you what can satire not do. It can not make people stand to do things. I mean, if the people don't … I mean, alright, so I was reminding people every week, and then it was gone. And then the show was gone. Did people do anything? No. 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 people are just sitting around and not doing anything.
There is a limit to satire. I mean, the limit of a satirist for a comedian just stops at the edge of a television or a theater. If the people are not willing to do anything they can. 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 sometimes be enough for other people to be scared. I mean, like, look at me. I'm not brave, I'm not courageous. I left, I escaped. I feared for my life. It's just like … I have to say that Egypt is … It doesn't matter how far you are from Egypt, it still consumes you. It's just like, you care about what happens and debating, "should I?" … It's just like … It's nothing but disappointment. You wonder, like … Just like, does it make a difference? Will it make a difference? It's just, like … You think about that over and over again.
Monticello: And the big thing that you return to is the idea that people who are really otherwise very intelligent, can become super credulous and believe these things depending on the context or who's in power.
Youssef: Yeah. The complete cure device was a perfect example of how people, regardless of their intelligence or education would just fall into ideologies. The truth … Facts don't care anymore. When people would tell me, "How do you reach other people who have these crazy right wing ideas like you want? Because they don't care about the truth." Ideology first. So if your ideology is Islamist or pro-military, it will not change. And because if you question the ideology based on these facts, everything that you have amassed in your mind, everything that you have accumulated in belief will come crumbling down. And nobody is ready to lose their faith or believe in a God or in a military leader. But the problem is that these people, they put themselves … they equate themselves with their relationship with God. They equate themselves with the military, with the land, with the country.
Monticello: And Sisi is basically like a deity, right? Or he's portrayed that way. His face is on everything.
Youssef: The most important value of satire, that it humanizes people in power. So you can stand against them. We did that under the Islamists because the Islam is … Anybody coming on the wave of a Muslim rule was considered holy. We broke that down. We tried doing that in the military but we didn't have time. But time itself, now after three years, everybody can see what kind of a phony the military leadership is.
Monticello: What was that like for you, kind of going though that experience of delivering this? You could see that it was really genuine for people, and then, kind of having that taken away.
Youssef: It represents whatever happened to the country, not just the show. There is a window, a window of opportunity. We have freedom, we have a freedom of political satire and you have freedom of so many things. So many talents were budding everywhere and then it was just taken away.
Monticello: Have there been any sort of actual structural changes with the people or the conversation in Egypt?
Youssef: Propaganda is very short lived, especially in the time of internet. You can't really fool the people for long. Now there's a meltdown with everything. Meltdown of political, social structure … Economy is a huge thing. They're failing big time, and I don't know how long, or how sustainable, this can continue. And I fear that, I mean, people talk about the next revolution. I don't know if there's going to be a next revolution or total destruction because we have seen the prequel in Syria. When the regime was threatened, they destroyed the whole country to stay in power, and I don't think those people are different.
Monticello: You talk about Sharia. It's frequently invoked by Republicans usually to say things like, "They're trying to bring Sharia law to Michigan." Even people on the left, like Bill Maher, who are skeptical of Islam, they will say things like, "There's no such thing as a moderate Muslim, right? You look at surveys, 70 percent of them think we should live under Sharia." Why do you think that's a false argument?
Youssef: Well, first of all, I'm not a big fan of Sharia, whatever, in the constitution. I think whatever constitution we have should be sacred. But also, you need to understand, what does it mean by this word? I mean, all the people who say, "We want to live under Sharia," maybe they think about … Because it's stuff related to marriage or inheritance. This is all under Sharia. But of course there's also what people say that is part of Sharia that you kill someone who changes their religion, or the beheading or whatever. How many countries in the world other than Saudi Arabia is doing that? And they all have Sharia in their constitutions. So yes, it is a big problem there, but here when you see people think Sharia, you need to understand what do they mean by Sharia. So if you go and ask those people, the 70 percent, you need to ask them specific questions—what exactly in the Sharia law that you prefer? And I don't know the answer. Maybe, you said, 70 percent want to behead people and cut their arms, I don't know. Right?
Monticello: Another argument that you hear a lot here is that Islam is a political system … Or it's not a religion, it's an ideology, right?
Youssef: Aren't all religions ideologies? In Europe, Christianity was an ideology, and it's like a political system too. Here's the thing, just to answer this argument: religions do not evolve, right? What happened in Europe, between the Dark Ages and now … Christianity didn't evolve, it's the same book, right? But that same book was used in order to commit atrocities, and commit crimes against humanity, and commit wars—the same thing that Islam is used now. What was the difference is that the Christian communities evolved beyond that.
What we're having … The problem that we have in the Islamic world is not the religion being evolved. It is the community evolving beyond the literal interpretation of certain verses. So you can still have people still being Muslims, and say, "You know what? This is just going to be a spiritual guidance for us. But we are not going to use that kind of" … This look like all or none is the one that is being put by authorities. Everyday people don't care. They care about their everyday life. They really don't care about, like … If someone's putting food on their table and they're having good jobs, they don't care.
But it is the whole thing of, "We only need to work under this kind of political Islam." These are the groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafis or the extreme ones that are using that, but they are … And this is why their ideology needs to be revoked and need to be faced. If you're a Muslim, you want to go into politics, welcome, but you have to play under secular rules. Complete secular rules.
Monticello: And so why do you think that has not become a more popular ideology in Egypt?
Youssef: Yeah, because it's … Egypt has been ruled by the military for 60 years, and religion is a very strong weapon to keep everybody in check. We have never been an Islamic republic, right?
Youssef: It is the conservative military who have used this kind of rule in order to make people under control. It's just a method of control.
Monticello: Is it that the hard-core people who actually want to implement all of this, and put everybody under these very repressive regime are a small minority? Or do you think it's broader?
Youssef: It doesn't really matter if you're a small … It could be a minority, but you can be a very strong minority. The Muslim Brotherhood is just like a million people. But they are very organized, and they can spread their ideology very easily.
Monticello: Shifting gears now … So now, about American politics—famous comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock … A lot of them are saying now that they don't want to go to college campuses because people can't take a joke. Do you think that they're just whining, and that they don't actually have to deal with that sort of backlash, like you did? Or is there something to that?
Youssef: No, but to be politically correct is okay. But you really need to take a joke. There is a difference between how you deal with … Like when you wage a war against political correctness, like Donald Trump and Coda's, which means they're being rude. And satire … It can offend people if it's comedy, and you know that it's not ill-intentioned. And I really want to see more of those barriers being broken and more jokes to be done. People just need to lighten up.
Monticello: Would you perform on college campuses, the way it is?
Youssef: Yeah, if they pay me, I will. I don't care. [Laughter]
Monticello: Take a few tweets?
Youssef: Oh, yeah.
Monticello: Do you see a similar thing here, where a lot of these political parties don't really have real ideology behind them that people can attach themselves to, it's just sort of like tribal warfare?
Youssef: It is tribal warfare. And I said in the beginning, truth doesn't matter anymore—like, I'm voting for this guy because I hate the other guy. There is absolutely no reason for people voting for Trump other than they just hate the liberals.
Monticello: Do you think that Donald trump represents a unique sort of authoritarian threat in this country? Could you see him …
Youssef: It's a threat if the system doesn't hold him back.
Monticello: And do you think that that also exists? Are there authoritarian tendencies on the other side of the aisle too? Because you talk a lot about Republicans and …
Youssef: There are also authoritarian tendencies on the left, but they are more liberal with people's liberties, which is, I think, it's most important.
Monticello: Do you think that Donald Trump…
Youssef: I mean, both of them bombed the Middle East very effectively. And so there is no difference there.
Monticello: Obama was a great Middle East bomber.
What is next for you?
Youssef: I hope to have a place in the American media. Maybe I'll have my own show, a movie, TV sitcom, who knows?
Monticello: And you're living in Los Angeles, in California?
Youssef: Yes, I am.
Monticello: How have your expectation of moving here matched up with reality?
Youssef: Well, it's good. I mean, in one year I have a movie, a book out, I've been on the late night circle. So, I had a show last year called "Democracy Handbook" on Fusion. So, it's not a bad first year. Now I'm kind of at 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.
Monticello: Well I hope that we get to see much more of you in the future.
Youssef: Thank you so much.