Arts, Culture & Media

Bassem Youssef set his satiric sights on Egypt's military, and got yanked off the air

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Credit: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/REUTERS

On October 25th, Egyptians watch the season's first episode of "Al-Bernameg" ("The Program") by Egypt's most famous satirist, Bassem Youssef. One week later, the show was cancelled by the independent network CBC before the second episode went to air. Bassem Youssef is known for his fierce jabs at ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Youssef rose to fame with a satirical online show after the uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.

Fridays in Egypt mean many things. It's the Muslim day of prayer, but it's also the day of the week when many Egyptians tune into  "Al Bernameg" ("The Program").

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It's the weekly fake news program hosted by Egypt's best known satirist, Bassem Youssef. But there's no show tonight. "Al Bernameg" was yanked last week from television by the Egyptian independent channel CBC that airs it.

"Al Bernameg" and Bassem Youssef had just returned to TV on October 25th after a three-month break. Egyptian satire expert Jonathan Guyer believes it's what was in that first episode that led to the cancellation.

"In the first episode, Bassem Youssef delicatedly criticized the Egyptian military and the cult surrounding the chairman of the armed forces, Abdel Fattah Saeed Hussein Khalil al-Sisi," says Guyer. "Bassem Youssef was eating cupcakes with al-Sisi's face on them and making jokes about how many he should buy to prove his patriotism."

Youssef also asked the very sensitive question of whether Mohammed Morsi's ouster was a coup or an uprising. That's something that's not uttered in public in the current heated political climate in Egypt.

Guyer says Bassem Youssef has been a polarizing voice in Egypt. At the taping of the second episode in late October -- which never aired --  there were protesters and riot police outside the studio. And some Egyptian liberals, usually huge supporters of Bassem Youssef, believe the comic has been critical enough of the miltary government or the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Bassem has a huge following," says Guyer. "He started on YouTube in 2011 and went viral. He's one of the most prominent comics in the Arab World right now."

Guyer says Bassem Youssef writes a weekly column for privately owned daily Al-Shorouk that just last week criticized Egypt's liberals for a lurch to the right. "He kind of chastised them for not supporting him in the face of this ostensible military censorship."

In another column Youssef wrote about how anti-semitism in the Middle East is as ridiculous as Islamaphobia is in the West.

Jonathan Guyer says Bassem Youssef is much more than Egypt's Jon Stewart.

"Bassem has to deal with these ambiguous red lines, what is acceptable to say and joke about, like mass violence or the president."

And Guyer says Youssef is very Egyptian in his humor. "He uses cabaret and song and dance.  There's whole musical numbers with up to 50 folks singing about Morsi's ouster to the tune of 'Old MacDonald had a farm.'"

Guyer says Youssef speaks for many Egyptians who are afraid to do what he does. "Egyptians are really waiting for him to criticize the military for them because there has been this great nationalistic ferver that's constricted the space for political expression here." 

Guyer says Bassem Youssef is single-handedly testing the limits of freedom of expression in post-revolutionary Egypt. "He's at much greater risk than Jon Stewart."

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