A Comedy Hero’s Sad Silence
Fearful for his family’s safety, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef goes off the air — but his message is still loud.
By Dave Fox
Some comedians fear low-flying tomatoes. Bassem Youssef has had to fear much worse.
The political satirist, who has been called an Egyptian version of Daily Show host Jon Stewart, announced on Monday that he’s pulling his TV show, “Al Bernameg,” (Arabic for “The Program”) off the air due to what the New York Times called, “unspecified political pressure and threats.”
In a nation that’s been mired recently in political violence and oppression of free speech, Youssef has attacked politicians not with conventional weapons, but with scathing wit. He has mocked deposed dictator Hosni Mubarrak, former President Mohammed Morsy, and President-Elect Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. For doing so, he has paid heavy prices.
Trained as a heart surgeon, Youssef began his comedy career in his laundry room. That’s where he recorded his first “television show” in 2011 and uploaded it to YouTube. What happened next was something aspiring comics have lavish fantasies about.
In it’s first three months online, Youssef’s YouTube channel snagged more than five-million hits. The Egyptian TV network, CBC, offered him a show with a half-million-dollar budget.
But then in 2012, CBC pulled the plug on “Al Bernameg” after Youssef took verbal jabs at el-Sisi, who was Egypt’s Army chief at the time. A different network, MBC, picked up the show, which had become one of Egypt’s most watched programs.
Then, in March, 2013, Youssef was arrested – charged with insulting Islam and President Morsi. He was detained and questioned for several hours. He later told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour he was forced to watch episodes of his program and explain his punch lines to authorities, “line by line, phrase by phrase, and joke by joke.”
This past February, as Egypt was gearing up for new elections, MBC took “Al Bernameg” off the air – so “Egyptian voters’ orientation and public opinion won’t be influenced,” the network said.
The show was scheduled to return to television last week, but it did not.
“I’m tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family,” Youssef told reporters Monday at a press conference in the Cairo theater where his program was recorded. “We are tired of moving from one network to another network and being under emotional pressure.”
On one level or another, comedy is always a risky endeavor, but in nations where free speech is squelched with bullets and torture, the humor that laces through political satire is gravely serious.
One of my lifetime highlights as a humor writer came in 2012 when I traveled to Mandalay, Burma, to meet the Moustache Brothers, a comedy trio, two of whom spent several years in brutal labor camps for the political jokes they told.
I don’t use the word “hero” very often. It’s become overused and trivialized. But the Moustache Brothers are comedic heroes, and so is Bassem Youssef. Through their comedy, they have all risked their lives in attempts to rid the world of oppressive regimes.
I was sad to hear Youssef has decided to shut things down for now, but when a comedian fears for his family’s safety, you can’t fault him for self-censoring. It is obvious if he did not do this, he would have risked being squelched in harsher ways.
On his way out, however, Youssef made an excellent point.
“We consider the shutting down of the show a message in itself that is stronger, clearer and much louder than its continuation,” he said. “The message is delivered.”
Mr. Youssef, you are correct. We get what’s going on. We hear your silence – loud and clear.
Jon Stewart interviewed Bassem Youssef for The Daily Show in 2012 and 2013. Watch the videos here: