Satire Strikes in Egypt and Even the Haters are Watching

The host of one of the most famous talk shows in the world, the American political satirist Jon Stewart’s influence is tremendous. The Egyptian equivalent, Bassem Youssef, has a viewership of more than ten times that of Stewart’s. Thus, his absence from the airwaves over the past four months was certainly poignant and widely felt. Correspondingly, his return to the airwaves, amidst a hyper-nationalistic political environment and a crackdown on pro-Mursi political forces in Egypt, was a primetime event. As a result of his first episode, which opponents deemed as insulting to the military, there are already a slew of court cases being registered against him. Meanwhile, Islamist opponents decry him for not being anti-military enough. What does his return say about polarization in Egypt, and the future of political discourse?

According to the Tahrir Trends survey conducted prior to the end of Mohammad Mursi’s rule, six out of ten of Egyptians say they know who Youssef is; tens of millions of people in Egypt and the wider Arab world watch his show. In a country driven by polarization, however, Youssef’s popularity is also polarized. The same survey indicated that Egyptians were evenly split between support for him and opposition to him. Under Mursi’s rule, Youssef criticized radical Islamist preachers for their bigotry and extremism, and the Muslim Brotherhood dominated government for their policies. In return, he was greeted by anti-Islamists, and pilloried by Islamists in Egypt.

After the military ouster of Mohammad Mursi following widespread protests, a vigorous, and maniacal, pro-military fervour has swept large swathes of the population. This is despite the state-led crackdown against Mursi’s supporters that has led not only to engagements with militants, but also hundreds of civilian deaths. Against the backdrop of a “war on terror” rhetoric promoted by the state’s media apparatus, many Egyptians have overlooked human rights abuses – and at the same time, there has been substantial political violence carried out by pro-Mursi militants.

All throughout that period, Youssef has not been on the airways – a scheduled off-season summer hiatus was extended due to the tense security environment, and then again owing to the passing of his mother. Despite Youssef writing a weekly column where he expressed his opinions on the political situation (and where he also explained why he was not on air), numerous rumors were circulated and even published by dubious sources about how his show had been banned under the new military-based interim regime. When he finally returned, some of his detractors seemed even more furious by his presence than his absence.

The Binaries in Egypt finally agree on something: They don’t like Bassem

His Islamist opponent base, truthfully, would be hard-pressed to ever give a nod of support to Youssef. After Mubarak’s ouster, and early in Youssef’s political satirist career, he was deeply critical of the instrumentalization of religion for partisan purposes. After he became a target of pro-Mursi, extremist preachers on satellite channels, he seems to have become ever more convinced that this trend of political Islamism ought to be denounced. In the political arena, the Mursi government was initially given a chance by Youssef’s show – but particularly after Mursi’s decree that put his acts above judicial review, Youssef became deeply critical and pilloried the government.

Exaggeration of the effect of Youssef’s show led to many Islamists even (incorrectly) blaming Youssef for the downfall of Mursi’s government itself. It is hard to imagine any show from Youssef upon his return that might have met with Islamist approval, let alone one that, even if for a short amount of time, mocked pro-Mursi Islamists. One thing is for sure, however – even as they loathe him, huge numbers of pro-Mursi supporters find watching him irresistible – itself something of a testament to Youssef’s success.

Another type of opposition to Youssef, however, was given fresh life on Friday night. The overwhelming majority of this episode was aimed at mocking the military-backed interim government and the hyper-nationalist, pro-military frenzy – and reactions were virulent. For this segment of Egypt’s population, General Sisi is a savior, the military is a sacred institution, and the presidency is a symbol of national pride that ought to be hands off in terms of satire. The irony could not be more potent: When Youssef was critiquing Mursi’s presidency, that same camp was urging him to be more blunt, and even crass. At that point, the “dignity of the office of the presidency”did not seem to have much meaning then. Youssef’s show was predictably met with official disapproval from the network that actually aired the program, and legal complaints were lodged against him with the prosecutor-general’s office within a day. This portion of Egyptian society supported Youssef only in so far as he was a nuisance to Mursi rule – now, they view the likes of him as a fifth column, and a threat. A collision course, it seems, is rather inevitable – particularly as Youssef made it clear in the more serious parts of the program that he opposed repression in the name of the nationalism, while the more pro-military camp identifies General Sisi as a symbol of Egyptian nationalism.

The Maverick Middle: Loyal, critiquing supporters

Both of these camp’s reactions were rather predictable – what was not clear was how Youssef’s own political segment would respond. That portion of Egyptian society that is strongly non-Islamist, and anti-Muslim Brotherhood, but also rejects a role for the military in political life, forcefully opposing the human rights abuses and civilian deaths that have taken place as a result of Egypt’s “war on terror.” How would they respond to Youssef’s return? That “marginal, maverick middle” in Egypt’s political arena – would they be satisfied with Youssef’s approach upon his return?

Fittingly, members of this maverick middle were not deeply polarized among themselves vis-à-vis the show – a great deal of praise was given to Youssef’s return episode, with two main criticisms given. Many were pleased he had taken on the military adulation, which they considered more daring than expected, given the hyper-nationalistic support for the military that pervades the country. However, many wished he had taken on General Sisi more harshly. If the general remains heavily involved in the public political arena, and should Youssef then continue to criticize him, there will almost certainly be consequences (if only in harassment through numerous court cases). Youssef’s audaciousness in that regard, however, would certainly not hurt his support base within the”maverick middle” in the slightest – on the contrary. Secondly, the generality of the mavericks welcomed Youssef’s general opposition to unlawful killings and state repression, although some expressed the preference for a more delicate treatment of the pro-Mursi portion of Egyptian society. That is not surprising, given the price Mursi supporters have already paid, not least in the forced dispersal of the Raba’a sit-in, which led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed civilians at the hands of state forces and their inability to respond as effectively as before in the media given the conditions of their defeat. Having said that, Youssef’s treatment of the Brotherhood occupied the minority of this episode’s time – one assumes the future will see it occupy even less, unless the purpose is to mock the state for the treatment it doles out to the Brotherhood.

Watching the reactions, particularly on social media, it seemed clear that Bassem Youssef’s return to the screen struck a favorable chord with that maverick, marginal middle for the very simple reason that like them, he was transparent in embracing a rejection of the binary that envelops Egypt at present. That binary insists that either one ought to embrace or excuse a political misuse of religion (such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamism), or one ought to be blinded by some sort of rabid, fascistic nationalism. Those that have been harshly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood while in power, and are now pointing their criticisms at the militarily backed interim government (particularly at the army and the ministry of the interior) saw Youssef’s show as one of the more powerful voices within that rejectionist political position. Few viewers ought to expect they will find nothing at all to critique within his show (the implicit sexual references, for example). But, Youssef has a rooted and natural, if critical, audience within that maverick middle, who look forward every week to his show, “el-Bernameg,” serving its role as an honest mirror to society’s state of affairs – because they know its host has a bias in favor of the original Jan. 25 revolution of 2011. It’s a favoritism these mavericks will appreciate.

Both the pro-military camp in Egypt and Islamist supporters of Mursi opted to call Youssef a clown – but, in the words of a prominent Egyptian blogger, “Zeinobia, he appears to be: “The clown that scares everyone. Oh yes: We moved forward from the religious icons to military icons!!”

At the end of the day, it will be impossible for Youssef to please everyone. Nevertheless, there will be those that share Youssef’s rejection of the binaries that so polarize Egypt at present that will consider Youssef’s contribution at this difficult time to be a critically important one. This episode’s promise was to demand that the freedom to criticize one’s leaders, and hold powerful people to account, never be taken away. If nothing else, Bassem Youssef has picked up that gauntlet. Despite the price he may or may not have to pay in the process, he may yet inspire others to do the same.