“Welcome to The Program!” Every week Egyptians obsessively tuned in to hear that slogan and watch groundbreaking TV political satirist Bassem Youssef flay their politicians. Some loved his biting humor, others were infuriated, but no one could ignore it. For four months, they’ve gone without him, his show kept off the air by turmoil surrounding the country’s coup.
Now the man known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” is back, returning to the air Friday night in a country radically different from four months ago.
When Youssef’s final show of last season aired, the president was Islamist Mohammad Mursi - Youssef’s favorite target. The satirist mocked him and his Islamist supporters mercilessly week after week for mixing religion and politics and for botching the governing of the country. Soon after the last show, massive protests began against Mursi, paving the way for the military to remove him.
Since then, divisions have grown deeper and hatreds stronger. Hundreds have been killed in crackdowns on protesters demanding Mursi’s reinstatement. Attacks by Islamic extremists have increased. A nationalist, pro-military fervor is gripping the country, leaving little tolerance among the public or officials for criticism of the new leadership, with military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi lionized as a hero.
So the question hanging over Friday’s episode of “El-Bernameg” - Arabic for “The Program”: Will Youssef mock the military-backed leadership and its supporters as sharply as he did Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists?
Doing so could anger Youssef’s mainly liberal fan base, who cheered when he excoriated Islamists and who now largely support the military. But if he avoids it and focuses his jokes against Islamists, he could appear to be caving in to pressure. Mursi supporters - some of whom “hate-watched” Youssef as regularly as the adoring fans - are already predicting the 39-year-old satirist will sell out.
In an article Tuesday, Youssef took up the challenge, criticizing the intimidating atmosphere.
“I admit things are much harder now,” Youssef wrote in his weekly column in al-Shorouk. “Not only because the raw material coming from religious stations or Mursi has diminished,” he quipped, referring to the rich vein of folly from Islamists he mined for jokes - “but because the general mood is different.”
“In reality, there is no tolerance on the Brotherhood side or among those who call themselves liberals. Everyone is looking for a pharaoh that suits them,” he wrote.
He said military supporters tell him, “Don’t talk about el-Sisi” - “even though they were the same ones waiting for me to talk about Mursi.”
He noted that under Mursi’s year-long presidency, Islamist critics sent him to the prosecution office for questioning on possible charges of insulting the presidency. “I may be visiting (it) again soon at the hands of other people, who allegedly love freedom dearly - when it works in their favor,” he jabbed.
Most of all, he pointed to the difficulty of joking amid tragedy. “How do we come up with a comedy program when the talk all day is about blood?” he wrote. “When people live in fear, terror, hate and anger, no one listens to reason, let alone satire.”
Youssef’s long hiatus between seasons was in part because a curfew in place since mid-August made filming the show difficult and because of the recent death of Youssef’s mother.
The surgeon-turned-comedian’s “Daily Show”-style program brought an entirely new type of political satire to Egypt. He began with short, self-made YouTube episodes during the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. He was picked up by a TV station popular among young revolutionaries. As his star rose, he moved to another station, CBC, seen as stacked by former supporters of Mubarak.
Many thought Youssef would follow the station’s conservative line. But he turned his jokes against his own station, mocking its claims of revolutionary credentials. With sky-high ratings bringing advertising cash, CBC was not about to drop him.
But his biggest target was the Islamist elite that rose to power in post-Mubarak elections - excoriating them so sharply that some credit him for fueling the tidal wave of protests against Mursi. In fast-paced jokes, Youssef lampooned Mursi’s clumsy speeches and gestures. He played clips from Islamist TV stations to expose hypocrisy in their mix of religion and politics. He fact-checked the president. One episode in which he played video clips showing 2010 remarks by Mursi, calling Zionists “pigs,” caused a brief diplomatic tiff with Washington.
In reply, Islamist lawyers tried to sue him for “corrupting morals” or “violating religious principles” and prompted the arrest warrant for “insulting the presidency.” He was questioned by prosecutors and released without charges.
Naila Hamdy, a journalism professor at the American University in Cairo, said Youssef might go after the military-backed civilian government or satirize out-of-control pro-military fervor. But mocking the military directly is harder, given the public mood. “It is a very highly mobilized nationalist feeling in the country. Even Bassem Youssef would not want to go against that.”
Social media have been buzzing. A Twitter hashtag of “#Joy” was started by fans for his return.
“Will he be like all the other media personalities or will he stand out?” tweeted one fan, referring to other media’s unquestioning backing of the military.
One pro-Mursi protester, Mahmoud Mohammed said Friday he always watched Youssef “to know what the other camp is saying.”
He’s convinced the comedian will stick to knocking Islamists and avoid the military. “The government repression is too heavy.”