This essay, authored by Allia Calkins ’16, appeared in the Fall 2013 print issue.
In a 2012 interview with Dr. Bassem Youssef, Jon Stewart declared, “one thing [Jews and Muslims] probably share is that going to your mother as a heart surgeon and saying ‘yeah, I think I’m going to be a comedian’ would be a problem.” Stewart was expressing his disbelief that Youssef, an accomplished Egyptian cardiothoracic surgeon, was giving up his hospital career to produce a satiric news program entitled Albernameg (The Program). Through his television show, Youssef uses sarcasm to voice the opinions of average Egyptians amidst Egypt’s ongoing democratic transition. In doing so, Youssef lends himself not only to comparisons with satirical king Jon Stewart, but also, to prosecution. Over the last 200+ years, the United States has developed a relatively stable government that is confident enough to open itself to satirical critique. Egypt, on the other hand, is currently undergoing the process of democratization. Its leaders are not used to the power that free speech provides its people, and satire – rather than serving as a platform for entertaining, light-hearted criticism – is instead viewed as a threat to government influence and stability.
Youssef regularly pokes fun at the Egyptian government, and has suffered for it. When Mohammed Morsi was in power, for example, Youssef imitated him and his grandiose style, and gave voice to many of Egyptian citizens’ government criticisms. Youssef was subsequently arrested and charged with “insulting the president, denigrating Islam, and undermining security.” In arresting him, the Egyptian government demonstrated its discomfort with free speech and Egypt’s status as an infantile democracy. At the same time, however, Youssef became aware of just how powerful his voice was, and began to branch out beyond television. Like many other Egyptians, for example, he began to utilize Twitter as an outlet for his opinions. During the protests against President Morsi, Youssef used his Twitter account to join many of his fellow citizens in demanding Morsi’s resignation. Youssef also started publishing op-ed columns in Egyptian news media. In one column, he expressly stated, “I will take one side, for there is no room for lenient and undecided stances. I have decided I will take the side of the Brotherhood.” This column, remarkably free of sarcasm and humor, is titled “Egypt: The Destruction of a Nation.” It brings to mind moments on The Daily Show when Jon Stewart shifts his tone and uses his show to seriously address issues.
As the ousting of President Morsi demonstrated, Egypt has to form a stable government that can withstand negative critique by its citizens. Albernameg has been on hiatus since Morsi’s downfall, and military curfews will make it difficult for the show to resume for some time. As Egypt moves into its next phase of government, it remains to be seen how it will respond to Youssef and his contemporaries. One thing, however, is clear: Youssef will not stop paving the way towards a truly democratic society in Egypt. “If I choose today to tone it down,” Youssef told John Stewart, “tomorrow, we will be forced to.”