Egypt's "Most Wanted": the comedian who made fun of Mursi

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News of an arrest warrant issued against Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef has dominated the headlines and sparked debates in the world of social media. However, not many people know the man behind the funny mask.

From the seriousness of the dim operation room, to the spotlights of the comedy world of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, Youssef – a heart surgeon – fascinated millions and redefined the duties of a comedian in the Middle East.

He has been a rising comedic star since March 2011, when he launched his own YouTube show “B+,” criticizing politicians, actors and religious figures. Driven by Egypt’s revolution, Youssef used comedy to encourage people to become more involved in their country’s politics. He told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) in July 2012 that in order to build “the new Egypt,” citizens must become part of the decision-making process.

Born on March 22, 1974, the 39-year-old is married to an Egyptian-Palestinian, and is a father to one-year-old Nadia.

He graduated as a cardiologist, with a Ph.D. from the University of Cairo in 1998. To advance his studies and knowledge, Youssef travelled between the United States and Europe for two and a half years, working with medical companies. He carried out heart transplants in Germany, and was awarded his practitioner license in the United States in 2005.

Youssef told WSJ that despite becoming a comedian, he has not abandoned his medical career, as he raises funds for surgeons to carry out their work and meet patients’ needs.

Youssef used YouTube to broadcast more than 100 episodes of “B+,” named after his blood type. It received more than half a million hits in its first two weeks. Politician and businessman Naguib Sawiris, owner of Egypt’s ONTV, offered to hire Youssef as a host and producer for the channel’s new show “el-Bernameg” (The Program), which airs every Friday.

Inspired by U.S. comedian Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” Youssef accepted the lucrative offer, and premiered his first episode in August 2011. The show gained instant international recognition, and he was interviewed by the BBC, CNN and WSJ, among others.

During his guest appearance on “The Daily Show” on June 21, 2012, Youssef said one of the main differences between being a comedian and a surgeon is the luxury of not “getting sued every five seconds” by patients. However, “el-Bernameg” did result in lawsuits in Egypt, including one from President Mohammed Mursi.

The show, which had a small production team working in a small studio with Youssef during the first season, was revamped and launched in November 2012 on Egyptian channel CBC, with an adapted design from “The Daily Show.” Youssef’s reappearance angered the country’s politicians, media personalities and religious leaders, as he impersonated various prominent figures, including Mursi.

The first lawsuit threat came after Youssef’s first episode in the second season, from his colleague Emad el-Dein Adeeb, who said the comedian’s satirical criticisms were rude and unacceptable.

Youssef, a Muslim, told CNN in late 2012 that his goal is not to attack religion but the blasphemy of those who use religion for political gain. “We present ourselves as the voice of reason, and we have our differences with people on political grounds,” he said.

Following a string of lawsuits and threats, an Egyptian court issued an arrest warrant against Youssef on March 29 this year for allegedly insulting religion and the president.

Youssef appeared in court, and was questioned for more than five hours before being released on a $2,200 bail.

After his release, Youssef said there were four accusations against him, but only three were revealed to him: undermining security, contempt of religion, and insulting the country’s president. With more than 1 million Twitter followers, Youssef notified his audience after his release that he will continue to host his show.

One of his latest projects is a show he filmed in the United States in June 2012, called “America bel Araby” (“America in Arabic”). The 30-episode program used the “mockumentary” format, a combination of documentary and mockery.

Through this independently produced project, for which he interviewed a wide spectrum of Arab-Americans, Youssef told WSJ that he aimed to shatter stereotypes between East and West, foster mutual understanding, and help Arab-Americans become participants instead of victims. The first episode of “America bel Araby” was posted on YouTube on January 23, 2013, followed by two more episodes since.

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