Marco Werman: In Egypt, Friday means many things. It's a Muslim holy day, for one. But for many Egyptians, Friday is also the day when they settle down in front of their TVs to watch "Al Bernameg" or "The Program." That's a Jon Stewart-esque fake news show hosted by Egyptian funny man Bassem Youssef. Well, the show was yanked last Friday and it's still off the air. Jonathan Guyer follows Egyptian satire closely. He publishes "Oom Cartoon," a blog about Arabic political comics. Jonathan, one week on, what do we know about why Bassem Youssef's show was cancelled?
Jonathan Guyer: Well, in the first episode of this season, Bassem Youssef delicately criticized the military, specifically the cult surrounding the chairman of the armed forces, Sisi, and this went to very deep questions about the foundation of the ouster of President Morsi. Was it a coup or an uprising, was one of the questions that Bassem asked on his program, that very few are willing to debate right now in this polarized environment of Cairo. He also was eating cupcakes with Sisi's face on them and making jokes about whether he was patriotic enough. Should he buy a half-pound of chocolates with the chairman of the armed forces, or a quarter-pound. He was really taking aim at this whole new military movement that's really taken hold in the populus since the ouster of Morsi.
Werman: Now, Bassem Youssef had been on a break, a three-month break, before recording that first episode back on the air. So that actually was broadcast. Why was the second episode cancelled, and presumably he's off the air until further notice, right?
Guyer: No one's sure, Marco. There's great speculation that it has more to do with the TV network, the privately-owned CBC, and a contractual agreement. There's speculation that Bassem made fun of the duplicity of the channel, made fun of their TV hosts and the way they cover the news. But we really can't be sure, and we haven't really heard from Bassem since that episode was recorded but never aired.
Werman: What has the network said about the show being cancelled?
Guyer: After the initial first episode where he did take aim at the military, ever so slightly, the network distanced themselves from Bassem Youssef. And in the second episode, as I said, they really made it seem like it was a contractual issue. But I have to say it has to do with politics, because Bassem has really been a polarizing voice. There were demonstrations outside of the recording of that episode, which never aired. Dozens of riot police, ostensibly to protect Bassem, should these protesters have attacked him. Then on the other hand there are liberals who say that Bassem hasn't gone far enough. He didn't criticize the violence of the regime on August 14th, which killed hundreds of protesters. And he really only alluded to some of the overreaching that the military has done.
Werman: This is a private network that broadcasts Bassem Youssef. Are they in a bind with a charismatic host like Bassem Youssef who wants to make fun of everything, including the military?
Guyer: Well, Bassem has a huge following. He started on YouTube in 2011 and quickly went viral. He's one of the most prominent comics in the Arab World right now. He writes a weekly column for a major newspaper here, and last week he criticized liberals for a lurch to the right and kind of chastised them for not supporting him in the face of this ostensible military censorship.
Werman: Is Bassem Youssef still writing that column, or is that out as well?
Guyer: Oh, he's still writing the column, and he's written a lot about how anti-semitism is as ridiculous as Islamaphobia in the West.
Werman: So Jonathan, you follow a lot of cartoons, and how has the cancellation of Bassem Youssef's show shown up in political satire?
Guyer: Well, cartoonists are basically outraged. One really funny cartoon today had these two schoolchildren walking and one of them says, "I'm very, very anxious," and the other goes, "The constitution?" and the first child goes, "No, Bassem Youssef." So he's really struck a chord with that first episode, and people are really waiting for him to ctiticize the military for them, because there has been this great nationalistic fervor that's constricted the space for political expression here.
Werman: Jon Stewart appeared on Bassem Youssef's show last year. I think Bassem Youssef's appeared on "The Daily Show." Has Jon Stewart said anything since Youssef's show was cancelled? Do you know if they're even in touch?
Guyer: I can't speak to that, but I would like to say that Bassem Youssef is much more than Egypt's Jon Stewart. For one, he has to deal with these ambiguous red lines, these sort of, what is acceptable to say and joke about. Can you joke about mass violence? Can you joke about the president? And beyond that, he's really Egyptian in his humor. He uses a lot of 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." It's really a unique way of approaching political crisis. And certainly he's at a greater risk than Jon Stewart.
Werman: Satire junkie Jonathan Guyer speaking with us from Cairo. He publishes "Oom Cartoon," a blog about Arabic political comics and he's also senior editor of "The Cairo Review of Global Affairs." Jonathan, thank you.
Guyer: Thanks very much, Marco.