Egyptian comedy show takes on ‘merchants of religion’
For a brief moment on Friday night, Egyptians got some respite from the ongoing political crisis tearing the country apart. The comic relief came courtesy of Bassem Youssef’s satirical news show “Al Bernameg“ (The Program) which has just decamped from one ‘secular’ privately owned Egyptian TV channel to another.
There’s been little room for laughs since the president’s shock decision to put himself above the law and grant himself legislative carte blanche. The move, said to be temporary and necessary, unleashed a ferocious backlash and the ensuing tumult descended into ugly and deadly street battles.
But if Egyptians are known for one thing, it’s their humor and ability to make light of even the darkest most despairing situations. Youssef excels at this and since his debut in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, the heart surgeon turned TV host has come to be known for his ability to make some of the most contentious issues in Egypt side-splittingly funny.
By unleashing a deluge of satire on Egypt’s leaders - to great comic effect – Youssef is not only making light of the situation but also openly questioning authority and holding elected officials to account.
When I spoke to Youssef, shortly after taping his latest show, he told me “I don’t criticize, I satirize. I make fun, which is even more shocking. Whoever is in authority will have to deal with our program.”
In the newest episode, broadcast on Friday Dec. 7, as tensions in country remained on a knife-edge, Youssef raised the bar significantly by calling out those he describes as ‘merchants of religion.’ After mixing politics with religion, they were now using violence and sowing hate in the name of religion, he said.
In a country where the lines are blurred between politics and religion, Youssef says he gets a lot of heat from Islamists whom he considers Egypt’s right wingers.
“Our right wing here in Egypt is different from the U.S. because people here are more emotional about religion, they can’t differentiate between politics and religion. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are the right wing, I don’t deal with them as religious groups but as political groups,” he said.
In the ‘Al Bernameg’ studio, nothing is sacred, not even the president. By directing satire at the man himself - unthinkable during the Mubarak era - the show is taking full advantage of the hard won freedom of expression gained after the 2011 uprising when the so-called ‘fear barrier’ was broken.
“What is happening to the people on the streets, and the deaths from both sides, are the responsibility of the person who says he is a president for the whole country,” Youssef told his audience in the opening segment, taped on Wednesday night as deadly clashes raged outside the presidential palace.
The show goes on to make fun of a hastily arranged TV interview president Mursi conducted in an attempt to diffuse the backlash from his decree. In response to a question about the reason for his decree, the president launches into a monologue about Egypt and its blessings and asks the Egyptian to hug one another. Using fast forwarding visual and sound effects, Youssef makes fun of the rambling 16 minute response which failed to answer the question.
It’s no secret that ‘Al Bernameg’ models itself on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in fact Youssef himself appeared as a guest on The Daily Show earlier this year and told me ‘Jon Stewart is my idol.’ The new season takes its cues from Stewart’s satirical swipes at Fox News coverage and the trademark segments using politicians’ own words against them to show contradiction. The show is also taped in front of a live studio audience, a rarity in Egyptian TV.
In a previous episode, which was abruptly postponed due to the unrest but is available on “Al Bernameg’s” YouTube channel, Youssef devotes most of the show to a brutally funny takedown of Mursi, describing the president as ‘Mursi the uniter of powers.’ It is a reference to the Pharaoh Mina ‘the uniter of the two realms’ who united Upper and Lower Egypt to create one kingdom in the year 3200 BC. The joke being that Egypt has become bitterly divided under Mursi’s rule. A mock up of the president in full King Tut regalia completes the pun.
Using a variety of montages, graphics, sound effects and props, the half hour segment -- which has yet to be broadcast on TV -- makes frequent use of words like dictator, pharaoh, king, and absolute power. If Mursi wanted to marry your wife, there’s nothing you could do about it, one commentator says.
The show also makes fun of a number of speeches made by the president, calling him ‘Super Mursi.’ The superhero title (complete with DC comics font) is superimposed on an image of the president holding his jacket wide open in front of crowds in Tahrir, a famous gesture shortly after his election intended to show his fearlessness of appearing in public without a bullet proof vest.
One segment features a series of statements by Mursi cross-cut with similar statements from ousted president Hosni Mubarak. The suspended episode also uses clips from Mursi’s TV interviews during the election campaign. When asked how he would respond if, after being elected, people went out and marched against him, Mursi answered “This will not happen, because the president, if that’s me, will act in accordance with the will of the people. And if he fails to do so, I will be the first to go down and follow the will of the people.” In another clip Mursi is seen saying “I want the people to rise up against me if I don’t respect the law or the constitution.
The show does not spare non-Islamists, liberals and revolutionaries from its sharp-witted ridicule. The opposition protesters demonstrating against president Mursi’s decree are portrayed as lightweights more concerned with personal hygiene and getting a fresh supply of underwear than hard core protest.
Cue a show staffer strutting down an on-set catwalk wearing tighty-whitey ‘revolution undies’ over his trousers to the beat of “I’ve got the Power’ while Youssef narrates ‘he hasn’t changed his underwear in two weeks, these revolution undies can even double as a tent for sit-ins.”
As for the counter rally staged in support of the president’s decisions - which called for the implementation of Islamic Sharia - Youssef mocked the spin doctors talking up the numbers: In my personal assessment, I think there were 3 or 4 million people, one commentator says in a sound byte. At least 2 million and our brothers say 5 million so on average 3.5 million at least, another says. They say more than six million, a sheikh tells his TV audience.
At which point Youssef launches into an auctioneer’s voice, gavel in hand, saying ‘I hear 7 million, who has 7 million? Do I hear 7.5 million, You sir, in the back, 8 million, thank you, 9 million, who has 10 million?”
Youssef’s colleagues aren’t immune either. In his opening gambit on the season premiere, he took aim at his fellow hosts who share the airwaves on CBC TV, mercilessly making fun of some of the most well known faces in Egyptian TV. He also made a point of poking fun at himself for jumping ship from the left leaning OnTV, seen as pro-revolution, to the CBC channel, perceived by some to represent the ‘felool’ or old regime viewpoint. Bags of cash with dollar signs and other props were used on set to mock his fat paycheck.
For all the laughs, the latest episode ended on a serious note. After spending more than an hour making light of the deep divisions in Egyptian society, Youssef told his viewers: “We are not the ones who turned this into us versus them, we are not the ones who turned a political conflict into a battle between heaven and hell. It is others who have turned this into Muslims versus Infidels.”
And in the charged political environment, his parting shot was: “To those who think they live in this country alone, wake up. To those who think this is a numbers game, wake up. To those who think Egypt will be ruled by one group, wake up. To those who think Egypt is a young child in need of guidance, wake up.”
(A version of this article appeared on the Huffington Post.)