By Ursula Lindsey
A film crew squeezes into an empty room in a high-rise building in suburban Cairo. The crew is filming Bassem Youssef, a 37-year-old heart surgeon, Internet phenomenon and – let's just go ahead and say it – Egypt's Jon Stewart.
Sitting at his desk with a phone, a laptop, and an air of mock-seriousness, Youssef lampoons Egypt's television talk show hosts and celebrity guests. For decades, the media have been tightly controlled in Egypt. But Youssef's show is taking advantage of growing online audiences and the spirit of freedom ushered in by the revolution.
He started broadcasting two weeks ago on YouTube. So far, Youssef said, the show has focused on some of the most egregious fear-mongering and propaganda on Egyptian State television during the revolution.
"The magnitude of hypocrisy and misleading information never happened before and will never happen again," Youssef said. "That's why we have a lot of material. It was a gold mine."
That gold mine included a famous former actress complaining that because of the protests, she couldn't get pizza delivered for her kids. Then she accused the protesters of being foreigners in disguise, who were trained to look like Egyptians.
When Youssef aired that bit, he found himself at a lost for words, or at least words he felt comfortable putting on the Internet.
"I'm not into the vendetta business. I just want them to stop lying to people," he said.
Youssef's show makes the most of simple props, clever editing and his own charismatic performance. While the filming takes places, Youssef's wife, Hala, tries not to grumble too much about half-a-dozen guys taking over her house. She said her husband has always wanted to work in the media, and that he's always had a thing for Jon Stewart.
"I mean, when we first got married, he told me: I want you to share this passion with me; I love Jon Stewart. And I love Stephen Colbert. Egypt wasn't that used to this kind of free media, making fun of political figures and celebrities," Hala Youssef said.
Bassem Youssef discovered the programs during his frequent work trips to the United States, and now he watches them online in Egypt. He said he used to fantasize about doing something similar in Egypt, but before the revolution there were too many red lines.
"Of course we're just doing five minutes," Youssef said. "Jon Stewart does half an hour, he has celebrities, and he has his own cast of fake reporters and cameras. We do it at home using YouTube material. But on Facebook and on Twitter, people are already calling me the Jon Stewart of Egypt which is like: Wow! We are kind of like the ghetto version of Jon Stewart."
With his thin chiselled face and gray hair, Youssef even bears a resemblance to Stewart. He ends a lot of his sentences with the same high-pitched laugh.
There is a lot of laughing, teasing and some arguing during the day-long shoot. Amr Imail is part of the young team that produces Youssef's show on a volunteer basis. During a break on Youssef's wind-swept balcony, Imail said working on an online show has given them a lot of freedom and a different kind of contact with their audience.
"When you do something and you see the viewers increasing, it's really interesting to have the direct feedback," Ismail said.
In the two weeks since it's been on the Internet, Youssef's show has gotten half a million hits. But in a country where only a quarter of the population uses the Internet, he's still a niche phenomenon.
"But now I'm getting offers from TV shows that want to host me," Youssef said. He said he's not sure how people in Egypt will receive it, since they're used to sketch comedy, with people putting on costumes and make-up to play a character. "But I'm actually saying their names and I'm getting videos of them," he said. "I might get sued."
He said he hopes his victims will have a sense of humour about it and, like the targets of Stewart's and Colbert's satire, even come on his show.
He has another hope.
"Jon Stewart, you're my hero! I'll come to New York any time!"
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