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.