The Emperor had no clothes. Or rather, the Emperor was wearing one too many, according to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated administration. The last straw that got television comedian and chat show host Bassem Youssef arrested was a satire on President Morsi wearing an outsize ceremonial hat bestowed on him during an official visit to Pakistan recently.
Youssef’s avowed idol and inspiration, Jon Stewart, pointed out on The Daily Show that he spent much of the eight years of the Bush administration making fun of the President wearing big funny hats- cowboy hats. But Egypt is not the U.S., and never has been. Bassem Youssef would not even have been allowed to go on air with his show under Mubarak, let alone make fun of the President and the Muslim Brotherhood Party week after week. After the revolution of January 2011, Youssef went from doing ten minute video clip spoofs on YouTube to hosting a two-hour, must-see TV show every Friday night, with millions around the Arab world tuning in.
As the popularity of his show grew exponentially every week, Bassem Youssef, a practicing heart surgeon by profession who first started producing his skits in his own basement, went on to host on glossy studio sets on the most widely-watched cable channels in Egypt. He self-consciously modeled himself on his idol Jon Stewart: from Stewart’s mannerisms and self-depreciation to the format of the show to the host’s trademark irreverence and lewd innuendos- par for the course for an American comedian but shocking in a socially conservative country like Egypt.
And like Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef at his best could be excruciatingly funny while debunking false claims and exposing the hypocrisy of the party in power with the deadly precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. Until the authorities, forced to acknowledge the power of ridicule, were no longer able to ignore him. More than once, he was warned and ordered to cease and desist, to no avail. If, once or twice, his program seemed to be pulling its punches, dissatisfied viewers threatened to tune out in droves, and he returned in full force. Finally Youssef was arrested last week and interrogated, while thousands stood vigil outside the Attorney General’s office and millions more stood vigil on the social media. Even the U.S. Embassy in Egypt tweeted about the topic. And in the U.S., not only Jon Stewart but NBC, CBS, and television world-wide reported on the Bassem Youssef cause celebre.
No doubt domestic and international pressure played their part in the decision of the Attorney General to release Youssef. That same night, Bassem Youssef put on a show that pulled no punches. But he was the first to acknowledge that he had the luxury of relative impunity on account of his celebrity, and if that were lifted, so would his immunity. And he acknowledged, by name, the many dissident media figures now in jail who were victims of the public’s fickle span of attention. If you forget them and don’t speak out for them, he said, one day no one will speak out for you. He seemed to be speaking for himself.