Free Minds & Free Markets

Bassem Youssef Was 'Egypt's Jon Stewart.' Then He Was Forced To Flee.

How the Arab world's top satirist was censored, persecuted, and driven out.

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.

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

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.

Produced by Justin Monticello. Cameras by Paul Detrick and Alex Manning. Music by Topher Mohr and Alex Elena and Pavel Malkov.

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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.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • DJF||

    """"I hope to have a place in the American media.""""

    The US already had one Jon Stewart, why should we be punished by a second!

    Since he claims to be some sort of moderate Muslim why isn't he in a Muslim country moderating them?

  • Calidissident||

    How dare he flee from persecution, what a pussy right?

  • DJF||

    He can flee all the persecution he wants, he does not have to flee here. Especially when he is threatening to become another Jon Stewart.

  • Calidissident||

    Ok, he may not have to (though that depends on where else he could get residency) but so what? You seem to think you made a really great point in that last line, but you really didn't.

  • The Last American Hero||

    We have had multiple John Stewart's, but each one is less funny and more shrill:

    Bush Era Stewart > Obama Era Stewart > Colbert > Oliver > Noah > Bee. I'm pretty sure whatever comes after Bee is a 1 year old in an "I'm with Her" onesie and a full diaper crying for an hour every day, followed by HuffPo articles "watch how sad-baby's tantrum literally destroyed Trump in one scathing gif."

  • damikesc||

    He was also a smirking dunce who did much to kill off any possibility of civil dialogue between political opponents in his country?

  • Sigivald||

    "Wait, you guys meant 'Jon Stewart' as a compliment?"

  • 68W58||

    Clown nose on, clown nose off.

  • Adans smith||

    John Stewart?Really!! A guy that kissed Obama's ass? If you would have called him Egypt's Walter Williams. I would be on board with it.. Stewart is a rich socialist.

  • Darth Soros||

    Was Bassem also an ignoramus when it came to economics, and did he have the Mailed Fist of the State so far up his rectum that he could taste Rustoleum?

  • Stormy Dragon||

    Funny how all the people who complain about Soave's "While X is certainly a jerk, that's legal and attempting to stop him from speaking is wrong" comments being to equivocating are all focusing on whether or not they like Bassem's politics.

  • GILMORE™||

    The only thing anyone seems to be talking about is how "jon stewart is a dick" and that the comparison is less-than-complementary.

    Who exactly are *you* talking about?

  • damikesc||

    Funny how all the people who complain about Soave's "While X is certainly a jerk, that's legal and attempting to stop him from speaking is wrong" comments being to equivocating are all focusing on whether or not they like Bassem's politics.

    I don't see anybody saying he doesn't deserve to speak.

    Just that Jon Stewart is an ass who has ruined political discourse in this country.

    I don't know --- nor, honestly, give a shit --- about what Bassem says. HE is not my concern as his country doesn't abide by free speech as is.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Man, I came to make a Jon Stewart comment too. Not realizing that it had already made this topic spiral out of control.

  • Libertarian||

    Hijabs? We don't need no stinking hijabs!

    Islamization in Arabia: Nasser on The Muslim Brotherhood and Hijabs (1966 Egypt) - (english subs)

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I watched to see the hat; I was not disappointed. That hat deserves mocking.

  • The Last American Hero||

    You know who else had a funny hat?

  • Sigivald||

    Johan von Funnyhat XIV?

    True science fact.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||


  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Vermin Supreme?

  • Mark22||

    Bassem Youssef, known as the "Jon Stewart of Egypt,"

    That's mean. Why do you insult him like that?

  • AlgerHiss||

    Who in the fuck is John Stewart?

  • JeremyR||

    Shill for the socialist faction of their government?

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: Bassem Youssef Was 'Egypt's Jon Stewart.' Then He Was Forced To Flee.
    How the Arab world's top satirist was censored, persecuted, and driven out.

    Since when do Arabs have a sense of humor?


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