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April 17, 2013

The arrest of Bassem Youssef, Egypt's Jon Stewart, is no laughing matter

By Spear's

Bassem Youssef was arrested because he insulted the president. Perhaps the president needs to get a sense of humour

Dubbed the ‘Jon Stewart of Egypt’, political satirist Bassem Youssef is widely known for his late night show El Bernamej (The Programme). However, while Jon Stewart’s Daily Show may pick up criticisms from the bruised egos of US politicians, that is nothing compared to the reaction of politicians in the Middle East.

Youssef, having mocked Islam and belittled Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected but not universally popular president, was arrested with Morsi’s sanction on 30 March.

Before becoming Egypt’s most famous talk show host, Youssef began his career in cardiothoracic surgery and spent his spare time posting political satire on YouTube.

Read more: An interview with Shafik Gabr, one of Egypt’s wealthiest men

However, it was the Egyptian revolution, part of the Arab Spring, that inspired Youssef’s dramatic career change, as he explained to Time magazine: he had ‘an idea to do a show exposing the hypocrisy that was happening, so I became a comedian overnight’.

Worldwide viewers

Youssef’s show is hugely popular on Egyptian TV with around thirty million viewers tuning in each week. With over 1.3 million followers on Twitter, Youssef’s skits, comments and spoof’s on President Morsi and his political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, are widely viewed both in Egypt and across the world.

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Youssef’s show not only entertains his viewers but also signifies a cultural change as the Middle East continues its volatile response to the lack of political censorship that can be found on the internet.

Unlike Jon Stewart in America, where freedom of speech is sacrosanct, Youssef is a political comedian operating with restrictions on free speech, where any expression of dissent is likely to result in rough justice.


Upon hearing about his Egyptian counterpart’s arrest, Stewart tweeted: ‘When you are actually powerful, you don’t need to be petty.’ Not long after this, the US embassy in Cairo tweeted the same message, and soon enough a Twitter war ensued, with Haaretz reporting that President Morsi’s office tweeted back: ‘It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda.’

Read more: An interview with Samih Sawiris, another one of Egypt’s wealthiest men

The US embassy soon found itself receiving numerous posts from the Muslim Brotherhood until the embassy abruptly deleted its account. Not long after, the embassy’s account was reactivated, with all previous tweets deleted. Washington Post blogger Max Fischer criticized the decision by tweeting: ‘U.S. caves to criticism.’

A political satirist perceived as a threat by President Morsi, Youssef’s arrest has merely given him more material he can use for his next show, which he kindly thanked Morsi for.

Hopefully, when the next show airs, Morsi might have a sense of humour.

Read more from Talking Points

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