Egypt’s Jon Stewart Comes to America

Bassem Youssef’s skewering of Egypt’s political leaders made him famous in the Arab world. Now, with the U.S.-backed regime there cracking down on dissent, he’s coming stateside.

Comedy scares some people. Typically, as I have personally witnessed, it’s usually people in positions of power, or bigots. Neither wants to be laughed at out of fear it will undermine their credibility or message. And this fear can cause some to lash out.

Comedian Bassem Youssef, known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” found this out the hard way. For those unfamiliar with Youssef, he is wildly popular across the Middle East for hosting a weekly TV satirical show that was inspired by Stewart and The Daily Show. Youssef’s show boasted 40 million viewers a week. To put that in perspective, the top rated show on American network TV the week before the Super Bowl was CBS’ Scorpion, which netted about 12 million viewers.

Youssef also has close to four million Twitter followers. That puts him ahead of well-known American celebrities like Robert Downey, Jr., Russell Simmons—and even more than his beloved Daily Show.

But despite Youssef’s superstar status in the Middle East, last year he chose to end his Egyptian TV show. Why? Well, it wasn’t for some Hollywood reason like, “I can’t go any further creatively.” No, the show ended because of reasons beyond Youssef’s control, namely the rise of General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi to the Egyptian Presidency in June 2014.

Youssef, who I interviewed Saturday on my weekly SiriusXm radio show, made it clear that under Sisi’s rule there’s no room for political dissent, let alone comedy at Sisi’s expense. Keep in mind that since Sisi came to power less than a year ago, he has reportedly imprisoned scores of journalists critical of his administration and close to 20,000 Egyptians have been incarcerated for speaking out against the regime.

And as Rula Jabreal noted in Salon last week, almost “40,000 people have been detained in prison camps without trial (or put on farcical show trials), tortured, raped and murdered” by Sisi’s government. Yet the Egyptian strongman still has his supporters in Wasington. Just last month, in fact, Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert said that he hoped that “one day that our top leaders in this country will have the courage of president el-Sisi in Egypt.”

So Egypt is now very a tough room to play for a political comedian. Forget hecklers: We are talking imprisonment, or worse.

Not that it was always easy for Youssef before Sisi came to power. His show was born out of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. “I would see people in street chanting for freedom and justice. But then I'd go home and on State run TV it was a totally different reality. Imagine all your channels being Fox News,” Youssef joked.

So Youssef, who like many comedians is also a heart surgeon, began filming the protests in Tahrir Square and intercutting it in a comedic ways with the footage from Egypt’s state run TV. He then uploaded the clips on YouTube as five-minute webisodes. “I really thought maybe we would get 10,000 views,” he said. They wound up getting over five million.

Next thing you know, Youssef is offered a TV show. A political satirical TV show on Egyptian TV is far more remarkable than some might realize. Criticism of the government was not permitted under the almost 30 year reign of Hosni Mubarak, which came to an end in 2011. In fact, when I performed stand up in Egypt I was told I could make no political jokes about its leaders.

But with Mubarak out in early 2011, “fear crumbled and we could finally speak and joke about politics,” Youssef explained. He noted he was at first tentative about criticizing the leaders of the interim government. There was still a “fear factor.” But soon that faded and the show really took off.

Egypt, however, was in a period of political uncertainty that in turn led to uncertainty on the limits for satire. And what was okay under the interim government soon became more challenging when the nation’s leadership changed in June 2012 and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president.

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Youssef initially encountered few problems for skewering Morsi. Then, in April 2013, Youssef was charged with several crimes stemming from his ridiculing of Morsi and even Morsi’s hat. (It was a huge hat!)

But soon the charges were dropped and Youssef was back in business. In fact, the self-described highlight of his career came in June 2013 when his idol, Stewart, appeared on Youssef’s show. “Jon had been filming his movie Rosewater in Jordan and flew over to be on the show,” Youssef explained.

The studio audience had no idea Stewart would be a guest on that show. Stewart was escorted out with a black hood over his head as part of a comedy bit about catching a spy. Youssef then lifted off the hood to reveal Stewart. The studio audience went insane. I’m talking like HBO Def Comedy Jam audiences but on steroids. Stewart evens spoke some Arabic on the show.

By the next month, however, Morsi would be forced out of power and the military took control of Egypt. Youssef tried to navigate these new waters but it soon became clear to him that after Sisi took office in June 2014, there would be no place for satirical humor in Egypt mocking those in power.

So where is Youssef now? On Monday night, Youssef will be making his fourth appearance on The Daily Show, this time delivering a scripted comedy rant about the Middle East.

And he will be serving as a resident fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for the spring semester. Not a bad gig for a comedian. But that’s only for a few months. From there Youssef may head off to Dubai to start a new venture, but things seem a little bit in flux.

One thing is clear, though: At least for now, Youssef is a comedian who can’t go home. And it’s all because he tells jokes that scare people in power.