Bassem Youssef and the Future of Public Discourse in Egypt
“Bassem, we need you now,” one of my Egyptian friends posted on her Facebook status recently.
She missed the irreverent comedian Bassem Youssef during his summer hiatus from the show, when so much was happening: the ouster of Morsi by the military, the rise of fervent nationalism, and the leak of videos in which military leaders discuss their propaganda strategies.
Many Egyptians told me they feared that the comedian would not be able to parody the new government as he did the old. I was surprised–did they really think the military government would be less open to free speech than the Muslim Brotherhood?
But when he returned to the airwaves in October, he again used his position as humorist to challenge strictures on what can and cannot be said in public when commenting on Egyptian political life.
His hilarious Al-Bernameg show reportedly led to more than 50 complaints being filed against him in the prosecutor’s office for such crimes as “spreading anarchy,” “undermining national security,” and “harming Egypt and his image”, as well as insulting Minister of Defense Field Marshal Abdul Fattah as-Sisi.
Here’s what he did:
- He referred to the June 30 transfer of power from the civilian government to the military as a coup. (“Was it a silent coup?” he asks. He pulls out a rose and says, like a man breaking up with a girlfriend, “Morsi, baby, it isn’t us, it’s you.”)
- He questioned the number of demonstrators who took to the streets to demand the departure of President Muhammad Morsi. Al-Barnamag aired footage from television news shows in which newscasters claimed respectively that there had been twenty million anti-Morsi demonstrators, thirty million demonstrators, and even seventy million demonstrators, and he mocked the ridiculousness of these claims.
- He made fun of the fact that no one knew the name of Egypt’s new interim president–Adli Mansour–but everyone knows the name of Field Marshal As-Sisi, implying that this is because everyone recognizes that Mansour is a figurehead and As-Sisi is the de facto ruler of Egypt.
- Finally, he mocked the current public enthusiasm for As-Sisi, quoting a news account that called the Field Marshal “a leader rising above all others seen in the country, even the founders of the Egyptian state and its ancient civilization” and a female journalist who offered to marry As-Sisi, saying, “If he wants four wives, we are at his disposal…”
In June Bassem Youssef was taken into custody after complaints were filed against him for his mockery of Morsi. He was questioned for several hours by the Prosecutor but released without being charged. A panel of judges from the Supreme Administrative Court recently urged the prosecutor to reopen the case against him for “insulting the president.”
In spite of extraordinary ratings, he already lost his first producer, ONTV at the end of his first season. His new producer, CBC, issued a statement after this show distancing itself from the opinions expressed on El-Bernameg.
Then, just before the second program of the season was scheduled to run, CBC abruptly canceled it. According to news reports, the unaired program barely mentioned the military but mocked CBC itself, and its statement last week praising the military and national symbols, and distancing itself from El-Bernameg‘s position.
Locating the Boundaries of Free Speech
All speech is governed by overt and covert rules about what can and cannot be said in various contexts.
Egyptians make political jokes all the time in interpersonal contexts. But in public contexts, jokes at the expense of national leaders has never been acceptable. Part of this has been fear of legal sanctions, but part of it for many Egyptians seems to be that it is considered to be in bad taste (of course, as students have pointed out to me, its always in worst taste when the leader mocked is the one you support…).
Like many former British colonies, Egypt makes violation of its rules of speech–including libel and slander–criminal rather than civil offenses. This means that unlike in the US, where it is generally required that the accuser undertake the cost and burden of bringing and proving the case, any citizen can lodge a complaint with the prosecutor. The prosecutor must then decide whether to move forward with the case or to reject it, and the judge assigned to the case can also either agree to hear it or dismiss it.
In other words, if I don’t like what you say, I don’t need to bear the burden of bringing a suit against you. I can merely accuse you, and leave the burden of prosecution to the state. You, on the other hand, must bear the burden of your legal defense.
Needless to say, this has a significant tendency toward dampening many controversial statements in public discourse–including journalism and creative performances, which have no special privileges.
Under Mubarak, the red lines it was unacceptable to cross were fairly well established (they included criticism of Mubarak and his family) and enforced judicially and administratively (i.e. by the secret police), and the treatment afforded journalists who pushed the envelope, even when charges against them were ultimately dismissed, as in the case of Ad-Dustour‘s Ibrahim Eissa, they sent a chilling effect through the media community.
One of the most significant functions of social media in the period leading up to the uprisings was that it created a vehicle through which hundreds of writers could publically cross the red lines in conditions of semi-anonymity, and when they were hunted down and jailed (like Alaa Abdel Fattah and Abdel Kareem Soliman) or just tortured and killed like Khaled Said), it increased the amount of critical traffic–a heating effect rather than a chilling effect.
Creativity and the Future of Public Discourse
Revolutions are periods of enormous creativity, when boundaries are fluid, and new, innovative cultural forms can be invented and tried out. Bassem Youssef is such an innovator. He is pushing the boundaries of acceptable speech, and doing it with such consummate skill that his show draws some 30 million viewers each week.
Bassem Youssef has creatively pushed the boundaries of public discourse in multiple ways:
- He has taken a private practice–the telling of political jokes–and pushed it into public discourse
- He has created a framework in which media that forwards hegemonic state narratives–especially to excess–can be publically mocked
- He has created the first television program in Egypt to be filmed before a live audience
- He has created a forum in which public figures are invited to be interviewed, knowing they will be at least bantered with, encouraging an entirely new way for public figures to present themselves to the public
His return to television, moreover, reminded millions of Egyptians that they are not alone; that there are many of them out there who want a middle way between (in the words of Bassem Youssef), the fascism of religion and the fascism of Pharoanism (i.e. adulatory nationalism).
The reactions of broadcasters, federal prosecutors, the judiciary, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to these innovations over time will play a significant role in clarifying the boundaries of acceptable political speech in the new Egypt.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi. 2013. Bassem Youssef Challenges Egyptian Taboos (Arabic). Oct. 28. http://www.alquds.co.uk/?p=97763
Associated Press. 2013. Bassem Youssef, ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’, gets show canceled for challenging standards. Nov. 1. http://www.newsday.com/news/nation/bassem-youssef-egypt-s-jon-stewart-gets-show-canceled-for-challenging-standards-1.6365088
El Deeb, Sarah. 2013. Bassem Youssef, ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart,’ Returns To Air For First Time Since Morsi Ouster. Oct. 25. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/25/bassem-youssef-egypt_n_4164386.html
Fisher, Max. 2013. Wow: Nearly half of Egyptians support suspending TV satirist Bassem Youssef. Washington Post, Nov. 4. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/11/04/wow-nearly-half-of-egyptians-support-suspending-tv-satirist-bassem-youssef/
Guerin, Ola. 2013. Egypt satirist Bassem Youssef’s TV show suspended. BBC On-line, Nov. 1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-24780587