Egypt’s Jon Stewart: Media Sensation Bassem Youssef

Bassem Youssef get's last minute touchups before his scene as Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative presidential candidate, March 3, 2012. David Degner/Getty

Two blocks from Tahrir Square, hidden amid the chaos and faded buildings of downtown Cairo, Bassem Youssef’s studio projects the optimism of an earlier age. It’s housed inside the Cinema Radio building, modeled after Radio City Music Hall and constructed in the 1930s, during the golden era of Egyptian film. After decades of disuse, the complex has recently been revived by Youssef, the Jon Stewart-styled host of a wildly popular satirical talk show, who is fast becoming Egypt’s biggest new star. Youssef’s likeness now towers over Cinema Radio’s entrance on gigantic, Hollywood-esque billboards, a jarring sight for a man who was an anonymous heart surgeon just two years ago, and who says he still cringes self-consciously when he catches a glimpse of himself on TV.

Youssef moved into the studio for the start of his second season late last year. Called Al Bernameg, Arabic for “The Program,” the weekly show—which sees Youssef dissecting the country’s contentious politics with a Stewart-like mix of impishness and exasperation—started after the 2011 revolution as a YouTube series filmed in Youssef’s living room. He had been planning to leave Egypt for a medical fellowship in Ohio, but the videos went viral and landed him a television deal. Al Bernameg is now must-see TV in Egypt, with crowds gathering to watch in cafés as if it were a soccer match.

Egypt, Youssef discovered, is fertile ground for political satire these days. “I think it was just the right moment, doing it the right way,” he says of his show. “It all happened so fast.”

Yet Youssef’s success has also made him a target of Egypt’s new political powers, who seem rattled by his popularity and brand of biting humor. Sitting in his office at the Cinema Radio building one recent afternoon, he described various attempts to ruin his reputation and possibly force him off the air: government supporters railing against him on their own TV shows, litigation accusing him of insulting the president—and even of blasphemy. While Youssef has not yet been officially charged with any crimes, he clearly feels the pressure, which may be the point. “Their tentacles are everywhere. They will come after you one way or another,” he says. “It’s not a joke.”

Cinema Radio’s proximity to Tahrir Square makes it a fitting venue for Youssef. With Islamists dominating the government, and gaining power in the TV news industry too, the show has become a hit with Egyptians unhappy with their growing influence. Youssef often comes across as a rare voice of reason through his satire. He has also developed into a champion for activists locked in a bitter struggle against President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The smell of tear gas, from clashes between protesters and security forces in and around Tahrir, occasionally drifts into the studio.

Morsi and the Brotherhood provide Youssef and his writers with much of their comedic ammunition—as do the combative, religiously righteous Salafi politicians and media personalities now ubiquitous on Egypt’s airwaves. “They make wonderful material,” Youssef says. “Actually, we get fed up with the repeated good material from the Salafis. Even Stewart wouldn’t go after Glenn Beck every day.”

Many of the Salafi TV hosts make Beck look staid, calling their opponents everything from atheists to hermaphrodites. Khaled Abdullah, whose histrionics are notorious, was the first to broadcast the YouTube trailer insulting the Prophet Muhammad last fall, and many Egyptians blamed him for the ensuing riots. Youssef has lampooned the hardliners as hypocrites and dismissed them as “merchants of religion.” (He is also fond of mocking former supporters of dictator Hosni Mubarak and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei.)

But comedy took a dark turn in November when Morsi temporarily assumed autocratic powers that allowed him to push an Islamist-penned constitution through the drafting assembly. The move was hugely controversial, inspiring mass protests across the country. During street clashes between Islamists and anti-Morsi activists, Youssef proved to be the protesters’ most effective defender, parodying Islamist claims that the protests were a foreign-backed plot and wondering on air whether Morsi had become a dictator.

giglio-om0310-egypt-embed2 From cardiologist to media celebrity: Bassem Youssef became a YouTube sensation. David Degner/Gettry

Religious TV personalities quickly went on the offensive, trying to “tarnish” Youssef, he says, in the eyes of the public. His response: “Just to be as sarcastic as I can be.” The strategy paid off—eventually, even Islamic scholars stepped in to support Youssef in the war of words. But the experience also left Youssef wary of how political and religious passions might be used to incite people against him. “Mob action is what I’m afraid of,” he says. “With all the security issues in the country, anyone can come here and burn the building down.”

Another potential threat is brewing in the courts. Any Egyptian can file a complaint against the media, but it’s up to prosecutors to determine whether the complaints are dismissed or pursued. Youssef made headlines in January when prosecutors announced they were investigating one such complaint against him, for the charge of insulting the president—the highest-profile example to date of what analysts call a growing atmosphere of press censorship under Morsi. The government has denied any connection to the complaint, but Michael Wahid Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, says that the “big tell” is the fact the prosecutors are considering it in the first place. “There’s a way to shut these things down,” he says. “If they’re engaging in the motions, then it means they’re taking action. And it becomes harder for [the government] to distance itself.”

Youssef says there are more than 10 complaints pending against him. They range from insulting the president to blasphemy, a crime enshrined in the new constitution. “It’s a way to pressure you and a way to exhaust you and a way to drain your energy,” he says of the complaints. “So far we’re playing it smart. But I think they’re just waiting for the right thing to come out.”

Youssef takes his cues from Jon Stewart, as he is fond of admitting. He even appeared on The Daily Show last spring, where he confided that he had a “Jon Stewart fantasy.” (After assuring Stewart that it didn’t involve bondage, Youssef said it was just to be on his idol’s show.) “First of all, I want you to write this down: I love the guy,” Youssef says. “He’s part of the reason why I’m here.”

He hopes to develop what he calls a “fully breathing show,” which would include Daily Show staples like correspondents. But he also faces limitations that his American counterpart doesn’t. For one, it’s hard to get guests to appear on the only show in Egypt with a live audience. Politicians, he says, are wary of being laughed at. Egyptian viewers, too, are still getting used to his style of comedy. “Every single word we write, we take it seriously if it’s going to offend people,” Youssef says. “We have to work to be socially acceptable.”

But Youssef’s greatest challenge may be Egypt’s increasingly bloody political climate. After the deadly clashes in December, Youssef considered canceling that week’s episode, but instead opened with a somber address to his audience, saying he’d decided to push ahead “because for us, this program isn’t just for laughs.” On occasion, Youssef drops the satire entirely to offer heartfelt commentary on the spiraling political situation. He and his staff are constantly faced with the question of whether to continue with comedy in such trying times. “It’s heavy on the heart here,” he says.

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