Will political satire survive in Egypt? Since January 2011, satirist Bassem Youssef has become Egypt’s most popular comedian. He has poked fun at nearly every one of Egypt’s political elite, and his merciless, biting jokes about ex-president Morsi’s poor performance and bad English have earned him million of fans – and many enemies. Last April, he was briefly arrested for “insulting the president, denigrating Islam and disturbing the peace,” a move that created a global outcry, and even a tense Twitter exchange between the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian presidency.
Now Mr. Youssef is back after a four-month hiatus, and in his show last Friday he poked “equal fun” at the nationwide fan frenzy that has grown around Egypt’s Defense Minister, General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in recent months. Mr. Youssef imitated the general’s soft-spoken words and alluded to his rumored political ambition. It did not take long for angry, knee-jerk responses to flood the Egyptian media. By Saturday, four complaints had been lodged against Youssef. Interestingly, CBC, the satellite network that aired the programme has reversed its previous supportive stance that it took during Morsi’s era, and released a statement late Saturday, distancing itself from Bassem Youssef, and acknowledging that audience reactions after the show were “largely disapproving.”
So what has changed? Has the public really changed its mind and turned against the popular satirist? Why has the network washed its hands of its own programme? The true answers to these questions are linked to two more questions: do Egyptians really believe their uprising on 30 June was a revolution? And how do they perceive the trail of events that have started in January 2011, and continue to unfold in the present?
In a previous piece about Bassem Youssef, I explained that the uproar against Mr. Youssef has religious, social and political dimensions. Ironically, the ousting of ex-president Morsi pushed aside the religious criticism; many Islamists did not like the episode, not because of its sexual hints or mockery, but mainly because, in their opinion, Youssef was holding back, and refrained from criticising Al-Sisi directly as he used to do with Morsi. The debate about whether poking fun at people is religiously legitimate has now been sidelined and substituted with equality in satire as the core problem as far as the Islamists are concerned; they expected their archenemy, General Sisi, to be “humiliated” just as Morsi had been.
Nonetheless, the social dimension is still valid. The recent complaints contain phrases such as “undermining the honour and dignity of Egypt and its people”, “discrediting General Sisi” and “mocking national sentiment”. All of these statements indicate that some Egyptians, not just Islamists, are still suffering from a deeply flawed hypocritical trait that forbids self-criticism and welcomes selectivity and bias. Many complain against the sexual innuendos mentioned in Youssef’s programme; somehow, the same people who had applauded these innuendos when they were mentioned under Morsi’s rule now find them grossly unacceptable. To add further irony to the whole saga, CBC, the same channel that aired Youssef’s programme, ran daily broadcasts over the final week of the holy month of Ramadan of adverts of upcoming movies that contained overt, frankly vulgar, sexually suggestive content, and none of those nationalists has made a single written complaint. It seems sexually suggestive content is halal when it is used as a tool for public distraction, but forbidden if it is used against the Defence Minister, who is officially not ruling the country “yet”. Perhaps some Egyptians felt uncomfortable watching “Gamaheer”, the character invented Mr. Youssef to represent the general public, because they saw in her their own struggle, fear and hypocrisy.
General Sissi’s rising popularity is now the core political issue behind this current dispute. His popularity may be baffling to many in the West; however, he has clearly managed to win the hearts and minds of many Egyptians, not just by his soft, appealing words, but also because he has displayed what the people perceive as good leadership skills, the very skills Morsi lacked. Should this popularity shield Al-Sisi from criticism?
The answer lies in what Egyptians really wanted when they poured into the streets on 30 June. If they truly wanted to overthrow Islamist fascism, then they should repudiate the equally oppressive national fascism and resist the temptation to elevate al-Sisi to a special, sacrosanct level. Those who shudder from labelling 30 June as a coup should be the first to embrace Bassem Youssef and understand that his satire is in no way undermining Egypt or General Sisi. In fact, it is the opposite; it is a testimony that Egypt is heading in the right direction.
There are people who are working hard to turn the clock back and revive the era of one-man regimes. That will not happen; we cannot ignore our revolution and erase it from our memory. If Al-Sisi is truly a smart leader, then he should ignore the slimy praise and remember that his applauders will be the first to turn against him if, for one reason or another, his fortunes change in the future.
During Morsi’s tenure, Bassem Youssef has expressed the desire for Morsi to appear on his programme. Maybe the military leadership should take the hint; there were rumours that Ahmed Ali, the military spokesman, may appear on the show, so why not make this rumour a reality? It would be the best message Al-Sisi could send to his supporters and opponents. It would assert that military leadership is not above anyone else, and that such leadership is willing to reinvent itself as a progressive, confident institution capable of leading the country to a better future.
I do not know if political satire will survive in Egypt or not. I hope it will. Some have blamed Youssef for rushing his return, suggesting that his timing was bad and that he should have waited a bit longer. I think they are wrong; Youssef’s return is a tough test of our desire for democracy. We Egyptians should not let our profound insecurity control our mindset. In January 2011, we demanded bread, justice, and equality. This must include equality in satire. No one should be exempted from mockery, even the beloved man in uniform, no matter how worshipped he is.