Does it surprise you when someone around you believes a stupid story or a tendentious rumor or a conspiracy theory which no man with the smallest amount of education can ever believe? It’s not that hard.
‘The talk of the town’
January 1997 - 17 years ago. I was at a gathering when I noticed that something kicked up a fuss and got people talking. Could this be possible? It’s was the popular Egyptian presenter Mufid Fawzi walking in. He was accompanied with a cameraman and he’s held his microphone as he conducted interviews with people.
Is this possible? Could this be my chance to appear on TV? Could Fawzi interview me on camera and allow me to appear on the most popular show at the time?
“Talk of the Town,” that was the name of the show. I didn’t know anyone who didn’t watch it.
Now all I had to do was be calm and think of a way to appear on the show without being obvious and make Fawzi not come near me.
There he comes. He is going to pass by me within minutes. (Say anything! Just say anything!)
I plucked up the courage and made a statement that at the time was indeed perhaps the “talk of town.”
“Are you doing a report on Satanists or what?”
The camera shifted towards me and the brilliant presenter asked me one question: “Satanists, what do you say about that?”Bassem Youssef
The brilliant presenter stopped walking and looked towards me.
“Would you like to talk about it?”
(Oh God! Could this be possible? It seems I will be on TV tonight.)
The camera shifted towards me and the brilliant presenter asked me one question: “Satanists, what do you say about that?”
I played calm and steady, maintained my smile and said: “I think this issue of Satanism is being exaggerated. If it’s school or university students taking drugs for example, then this is wrong. It’s a sin. But Satanism is a completely different sin. It’s (not right) to arrest people and defame them just because they are wearing black.”
My response ended there and I waited for the next question. But there wasn’t any. The brilliant presenter nodded, thanked me and left.
It’s not a problem. So what if he only asked me one question?
What matters is that I will appear on TV tonight.
I went back home and told my family. I also called up my relatives and friends and told them. My mom called our family members in al-Mahalla, al-Mansoura and Alexandria and told them Bassem will appear during tonight’s “Talk of the Town” episode.
It was time to air the episode. Sandwiches and cold drinks were prepared and my entire family sat to watch it.
The brilliant presenter kicked off the episode with a fiery speech on those who violated the sanctity of religion by worshipping the devil and inquired how the will confront this “black threat” and how we will protect our children from it.
They broadcasted interviews with residents of an area from which a man was arrested for Satanism.
“Have you noticed anything about him?”
“Oh yes, sir. He wore black (clothes) and listened to western music. His appearance was not normal.”
This was enough for the residents to categorize someone as a Satanist.
But what do we expect from people who read the details of arresting Satanists on the front pages? Prominent dailies had published photos of evidence in the case. The “irrefutable” evidence was black T-shirts bearing Michael Jackson’s photo, a black baseball cap of an American sports team and cassettes of Metallica, Nirvana and Black Sabbath.
All media outlets spoke about those youths who were worshipping the devil and offering sacrifices. To prove that, they broadcast videos of rock parties in which young men were head banging.
This was the evidence and this was the general atmosphere. The people believe there’s Satanism in Egypt. Why? Because the TV and newspapers said so.
Young kids, some of whom belong to well-off families (an important point used to pit the public opinion against them), listen to Western songs (did you just say Western? Then they will certainly be convicted of the accusation) found themselves in the middle of a case which the least that can be said about is stupid. But this was enough to end their future and perhaps destroy their families’ lives.
I can still remember how many hours the first and second television channels dedicated to discussing the issue. I can still remember the number of pages written on the subject and the catchy headlines, such as: “Sex, drugs within the dens of Satanists.” Al-Ahram and al-Akhbar published such headlines, and so did Rose al-Yusuf magazine which led the fierce attack against those young men. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you realize that the same people who led the latter attack are the same ones currently filling your head with conspiracy theories.
Amid this tense situation, I decided to say a completely different opinion via the Egyptian state TV channel.
My enthusiasm grew as I watched the episode. The whole episode was insults and advice to these miserable youths.
Everyone was criticizing them and condemning what’s happened.
“This is against our values and religion.”
No one can object to this point, but does Satanism really exist among them to slander these youths to this extent?
Half an hour passed, then an hour. A few commercials were aired.
My aunt and uncle called from al-Mahalla.
“What is this, where are you? Will you appear or not? You’re bluffin!.”
I felt shy and said: “I swear to God he interviewed me. Have some patience.”
They broadcast interviews with people on the street, at the American university and I still haven’t appeared yet. The show went on and I was a no show.
I looked bad in front of my family and relatives who were glued to the TV that night.
Oh, there are the interviews from the gathering where Fawzi spoke tp me. It seems my interview will be shown soon.
It didn’t happen.
But I didn’t get annoyed (well not much). I didn’t get annoyed particularly as I realized that I wasn’t the only to reject these stupid accusations and I realized that I am not the only one whose interview wasn’t broadcast.
It seems that we had opinions which attempted to show some rationalism away from the media hysteria. All we got in return was the opportunity to be asked one question and a nod.
When I think about this now, I realize that broadcasting my statement or the statements of those who agree with me would not have made any difference. The verdict had been issued already and the state succeeded, via the media, at convincing the public opinion that there are Satanists in Egypt.
This issue came to add a taste of victory to Police Day which happened to fall before the month of Ramadan. The brilliant had presenter exploited this golden opportunity to hold an interview with Hassan al-Alfi, the then interior minister. Following his outstanding victory over some teenagers, we witnessed his resounding fall a few months later at the Deir al-Bahri massacre.
It doesn’t matter that some of those youths left Egypt for good, carrying nothing but anger and malevolence against what they once considered their country. It doesn’t matter that these youths and their families’ life and reputation were destroyed. What matters is that media outlets fed on them by broadcasting false reports given to them by superior parties.
It doesn’t matter that investigators and judges who later handled this case said there was no case in the first place. It doesn’t matter if consultants, lawyers and judges clearly spoke out to say Satanism isn’t practiced in Egypt and the whole case was made up. We didn’t find this in media outlets because Fawzi, Rose al-Yusuf magazine, and the al-Ahram and al-Akhbar dailies didn’t bother making any effort to expose this truth to the people since they were exhausted with exporting a different truth.
All this happened at a time when the government only controlled two TV stations and a bunch of newspapers. Imagine what sovereign parties can achieve now when there are also “satellite” channels and “independent” newspapers that don’t hesitate to export any “truth” the government wants.
The issue of Satanism is now an old subject but it’s a renewed one when one wants to prove that brainwashing people in our Arab world is much easier than you think.
The Egyptian state which succeeded at convincing an entire country that Satanism exists is still succeeding at convincing us of Masonic conspiracies and global schemes. It can still convince you that the entire worlds of the galaxy are conspiring against you.
It’s not difficult at all to convince you that someone is an agent or a spy or that he plans to destroy or divide Egypt.
The faces are the same and journalists and experts haven’t changed. The school is one. The magistrate slaves are on standby because the magistrate hasn’t changed.
You yourself may be accused of being involved in a case which you laugh at because of how stupid it is. But don’t worry because with the right dose of programs and articles, you might end up believing you are actually guilty.
It’s all a matter of time.
This article was first published in al-Shorouk on Jan. 21, 2014.
Bassem Youssef is is an Egyptian doctor, satirist, and the host of El Bernameg (“The Program”), a satirical news program broadcast by a private Egyptian television station. The press has compared Youssef with American comedian Jon Stewart, whose satire program The Daily Show inspired Youssef to begin his career. Despite all controversy and legal debates it has sparked, El Bernameg has been a major success. It is constantly topping the regional YouTube charts, making Youssef’s YouTube channel one of the most subscribed to in Egypt.