The joke is mightier than the sword: Bassem Youssef

He’s known as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, although his show has now been pulled from the air. Bassem Youssef says those who think the Arab Spring failed can “get stuffed”. He spoke with The Walkley Magazine while in Australia for The Chaser Lecture in late 2015.

By Clare Fletcher
The Walkley Foundation

When the Arab Spring was taking off in 2011, Bassem Youssef was a cardiac surgeon tending to people wounded in protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He had just got a fellowship in America’s Midwest.

“To look forward to move to Cleveland can only tell you how desperate I was,” he said.

Then, moved by the collective hope, he set up a makeshift studio in his laundry, recorded a Daily Show-style satirical video and uploaded it to YouTube. Within months, millions had seen him.

Youssef’s Albernameg (The Show) was the first program in the Middle East to move from YouTube to television. He decided to ditch the Cleveland plan and stay. And after The Show shifted venue to film live shows in a Cairo theatre, he had a team of 150 and up to 30 million people tuned in each week.

But not everybody was laughing.

“We made fun of people in authority, and we tried to be the watchdogs of that crazy polarised media. We made people laugh. But we made a lot of enemies along the way,” Youssef said. “We tried to break those taboos, and we paid dearly for that.”

When the military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood, pressure mounted on Youssef and his team. In spring 2013 Youssef, facing an arrest warrant for insulting President Morsi, turned himself in. The Show’s makers endured lawsuits, smears and intimidation from what Youssef called “paid thugs”. They always knew it couldn’t last. Eventually it was pulled off the air, in late 2013. It found a new home for a time, but Youssef ultimately called it quits in 2014, citing the risks he felt to his family and himself. He moved to Abu Dhabi.

Bassem Youssef talks with Julian Morrow at The Chaser Lecture, 2015. Photo: Kate Golden/The Walkley Foundation.

Bassem Youssef talks with Julian Morrow at The Chaser Lecture, 2015. Photo: Kate Golden/The Walkley Foundation.

Since then he has been traveling. In November 2013 Youssef won an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In November he arrived in Australia to deliver the 16th Inaugural Chaser Lecture, at the invitation of the satirical show The Chaser.

It began with comedy and satire, as Chaser veterans parodied the whole genre of the lecture with at least six introductions and provided a menu with items like “carpaccio of baby koala”. And Youssef cracked plenty of jokes. But his message was serious as he described what it was like to see a tumultuous regime change.

“We were up against paid thugs putting our theatre under siege as we were trying to put a smile on people’s faces. It didn’t matter if we had a religious authority or a military nationalistic one. Theocratic and military authorities share one thing,” he said. “They have no sense of humour.”

Egypt’s government has become infamous for squelching dissenters in the press. The best known in Australia are Peter Greste and his two Egyptian colleagues Mohamed Fahmy and Baher Mohamed, for months causes celebres and just recently pardoned. Since then one of Youssef’s acquaintances, Hossam Bahgat, was summoned for interrogation this November over articles he wrote about the military, a development Amnesty International called “yet another nail in the coffin for freedom of expression in Egypt.”

Satirists and journalists share plenty of common ground. Both deeply are concerned with the idea of free speech, of bearing witness, and keeping a conversation going. With eyes that sparkle with wit and an easy, approachable charisma, Youssef has been an attractive figurehead for the satire scene in the Middle East. We asked Youssef what his absence means for Egypt.

“It’s not just about me or my voice,” he says.

The ambience at the  16th Inaugural Chaser Lecture. Photo: Kate Golden/The Walkley Foundation.

The ambience at the 16th Inaugural Chaser Lecture. Photo: Kate Golden/The Walkley Foundation.

“I’m just a show, at the end of the day. But to create this kind of an atmosphere, where anybody who talks and criticises is considered against the country, against the army, against religion depending on the kind of regime there — It’s disheartening. And it’s very scary, because creating that kind of atmosphere makes people afraid to speak up. It creates an atmosphere like we are at war … and no other voice can speak up.

“I mean, I understand that we are actually in a time of war,” he said, “but this kind of an atmosphere will prevent people from exercising the most important right ever — which is to hold people in power accountable.”

Jon Stewart is the obvious influence for The Show, and also a mentor; the two men have appeared on each others’ shows. At one point Youssef visited Stewart and the Daily Show to see how it all ran. He asked Stewart for advice on how to proceed when he’s afraid of the regime.

“If you are afraid,” Stewart told Youssef, “make fun of that.”

And so he gave this advice to the Chaser audience: “Sarcasm is the perfect remedy to fear. When you laugh you’re not afraid anymore.”

Youssef’s team might have disbanded, but they’ve gone on to other projects. Two of his writers now write and star in Saturday Night Live Arabia, he said. Another is starting his own show. But none of them are doing much political work, he said.

“It’s not the time for political satire now, unfortunately,” Youssef said.

With The Show off the air, Youssef spent a spring semester at Harvard earlier this year, and has been speaking in a number of countries. He is less visible on Egypt’s screens, and he avoids the spotlight. But he’s still having an influence, mentoring young up-and-comers.

Youssef is passionate about inspiring the young people of the Arab world to push for change, and the internet is a powerful tool for them to make their voices of dissent heard. In his Chaser Lecture, Youssef spoke about the ripples he’s seen from his work. The revolution, he said, is “sleeping but not dead.” Millions of young people were inspired to go make stuff.

“With every video, Vine or meme that I see on the internet challenging the propaganda machine and making fun of dictatorship, I feel that my show is still going on. That gives me hope,” he said.

Many have concluded that the Arab Spring, which started with so much hope, died without achieving much.

Youssef disagreed.

“A revolution is not an event, it’s a process,” he said. “And the process might just start with losing respect towards the same establishments that controlled the generations before us. In my opinion, that is the real revolution.

“For those who come to me now and say hey, the Arab Spring has failed or the Middle East is not ready for democracy, I just answer back in Michelle Payne’s words,” he said, citing the Melbourne Cup winner from the week earlier — “‘Get stuffed’.”

Clare Fletcher is a program manager at The Walkley Foundation and commissioning editor for the Walkley Magazine.