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Bassem Youssef: the Shunned Comedian

Bassem Youssef
Bassem Youssef. Photo: Hollandse Hoogte

With the revolution in Egypt on 25 January 2011, creativity surged across the country, with independent artists turning to social media to reach their audiences directly, bypassing the control of publishers and producers. None received greater critical acclaim than Bassem Youssef, who, within two years, became the most famous artist in the Arab world and originated a phenomenon that many tried to replicate, unsuccessfully.

The charismatic young Youssef (born 1974) was a cardiac surgeon when the revolution began. When the masses protested in Tahrir Square against long-time autocrat Mubarak, Youssef joined the movement that eventually overthrew the president in February 2011, helping to care for injured protesters.

This started Youssef on his next stage in life, to create a political satirical show unlike anything seen before in the Arab world. A long-time fan of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show, he turned to YouTube to create the show shortly after the revolution, a show in which he would be free from censorship and oversight by TV programme producers.

His show, called “B+” became an online hit overnight. Produced with a very modest budget, the show made fun of politics, using minimal visual effects, and videos and photos collected and curated by supporters. It soon drew hundreds of thousands of viewers, who eagerly awaited the release of each new episode, savouring their newfound freedom. As each new episode came out, it was immediately shared and re-shared across thousands of Facebook and Twitter pages. He quickly attracted the attention of mainstream media outlets, who recognized what he could add to their programming.

Youssef, who became known as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world, signed his first deal with ONTV channel in Egypt to host the show “El-Barnameg” (The Programme), making his show the first to make the move from YouTube to mainstream television in the Middle East. With a bigger budget, numerous guest appearances, and unrestricted freedom, the show was a huge hit for the channel. Youssef parodied and poked fun at various people, from TV presenters to presidential candidates such as Mohamed El-Baradei, Ahmed Shafik, and the eventual winner, Mohamed Morsi, and ushered in a new era of freedom of speech previously unknown in the Middle East.

With his newfound fame taking up more of his time, for a while Bassem Youssef juggled his life as a comedian with that as a cardiac surgeon. Before the revolution began, Youssef had secured a pediatric cardiology fellowship at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic in the United States and saw it as his ticket to “get out.” Even though he had invested more than 20 years in his pursuit of medicine, he gave it up to concentrate on his show.

After a successful 104-episode run beginning in Ramadan 2011, season two of the show moved to a new home and started a new phase for Youssef as a TV host. He moved from ONTV’s smallest studio to the newly renovated Radio Cinema and Theatre, where the show hosted a live audience of 220 people every week. It first aired in November 2012 on the Egyptian TV channel CBC and became the first show with a live audience in the Middle East.

The second season aired during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, which began in June 2012. Building on the freedom of speech he had previously enjoyed, Youssef was quick to criticize the new government openly. He often lampooned the president for his speeches and appearances. Only two shows into the season, he was faced with multiple lawsuits for insulting the president, insulting Islam, and spreading rumours to disturb public peace.

The public prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Youssef in early 2013 and after a long interrogation he was released on bail. Its audience snowballing, it was becoming the most viewed show in the history of Arab TV. On YouTube alone, the show had over 100 million views.

When a popularly backed coup by the Egyptian army overthrew Morsi after one year in office in July 2013, Youssef’s show was put on hold for several months. He faced criticism and accusations of self-censorship and failure to make fun of then defense minister Abdel Fatah El-Sisi (who led the coup) in the way he had done with Morsi before him.

But when he did return to air almost four months later, the climate for freedom of speech had changed drastically in Egypt. He began to poke fun at how people idolized El-Sisi, and it did not go well for the comedian. CBC issued a statement distancing itself from Youssef’s political stance and quickly pulled the show off the air, citing a violation of his contract. Viewers who had been staunch supporters of the show became angry at Youssef, accusing him of being a tool of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he had previously so often criticized.

In February 2014 he made his third move to a new channel. The third season of his show premiered on MBC Misr and was rebroadcast on German channel Deutsche Welle. The show was eagerly awaited and set new viewership records, but Youssef quickly found himself barraged with lawsuits for insulting the army, the “symbols of Egypt,” and the government, and threatening public peace.

After just 11 episodes, the channel suspended the show during the presidential elections “to prevent it from influencing voters.” After El-Sisi won a landslide victory in May 2014 with 93 percent of the vote, Youssef announced in a press conference that he would cancel his popular show, because the immense pressure on him, his family, and the channel had become too large.

He said that he and his team took the decision to cancel the show rather than tone it down and ruin it. “The show in its current form will not be allowed to return on any Egyptian or Arab channel. The environment that we live in is not suitable for the show, and I am tired, and we are at the end of our tether,” he told reporters. “To those who are happy the show has been cancelled, I tell them that the cancellation is a victory for us.”

In an interview with “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio in the United States, Youssef said that the public prosecutor eventually had about 400 accusations against him at his disposal, to use whenever the regime felt it necessary.

Eventually, Youssef had to move to Dubai with his family, after his show was pulled off air. He refused to host it on a non-Arab channel, saying that doing so would damage its credibility. In 2015 he moved to the United States and, in January 2015, he became a resident fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University.

Although he is no longer on TV, Youssef has far from disappeared from the public eye. He remains influential on social media, with millions of followers from around the world. He is credited with taking a show off the air after he mounted a popular campaign through social media against its host, Reham Saed. He was named one of the “100 most influential people in the world” by TIME magazine in 2013.

To Bassem Youssef, comedy is a tool to educate people, to encourage them to think critically while being entertained, to raise awareness about current issues, and to challenge rulers.

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