Top satirist Bassem Youssef joins MBC Egypt

Youssef’s first episode will be aired on Feb. 7

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Famous Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef has joined MBC Egypt to resume his widely watched show poking fun at the political life in a country still engulfed in unrest seven months after President Mohammad Mursi was ousted in July 2013.

“We are happy to confirm that Bassem Youssef and his team have joined MBC Egypt and we also confirm that the first episode of Al Bernameg will be broadcast on Friday, Feb. 7 on MBC Egypt,” said Mazen Hayek, MBC Group’s Official Spokesman and Group Director of MBC’s PR and Commercial department.

“Al-Bernameg will be back again Friday on MBC Egypt,” Youssef later said during a talk show on Egypt’s al-Hayat television channel. He said he chose MBC Egypt because it has an “Egyptian spirit.”

Asked about the possibility of him facing restrictions on media freedom, Youssef said the freedom will be there as long as his show keeps running.

Youssef had his first show in the post-Mursi era suspended by private broadcaster CBC for criticizing the military amid a nationalist zeal gripping the country at the time.

CBC said it suspended his show because he violated its editorial policy and contractual obligations, and that he upset Egyptian sensibilities by attacking “symbols of the state.” Authorities denied having exerted pressure on the broadcaster to act against him.

Youssef’s program, called "The Program" in Arabic, had been heavily critical of Mursi and his Islamist government. While he was interrogated by authorities under Mursi, his show kept running until the Islamist’s leader’s ouster.

During his interview with al-Hayat TV on Saturday, Youssef said he was opposed to the idea that Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi running for presidency.

“Do you agree with and support Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi for the position of president of the Arab Republic of Egypt?,” al-Hayat talks show host asked Youssef.

“No,” Youssef replied. “I said this before. I said that Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi is the army chief and I think that Egypt needs military leadership more and that the military should not intervene in politics.”

“As we previously said that we should not spoil the sanctity of religion by mixing it with politics, the army is a respected military institution and it is supposed to be far from the games of politics,” Youssef added.

T”he people who will run against Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi are not going to run against Field Marshal Abdelfattah el-Sisi, they are running against army and the defense ministry and you can never compete against the defense ministry, because the military is nationalist and is not supposed to enter political games.,” Youssef said.

No Self-Censorship

In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Youssef said his team of writers and comedians face a tough challenge, but they are not planning to hold back.

“We never self-censor,” Youssef told The Associated Press in an interview from his Cairo studio. “It’s not what we say about the government or don’t say, it is how to make people laugh and have a good time. In times like these this is a huge challenge.

“If people laughed, if people think we are respecting their mentality that would be great. Given the circumstances, the panic, the violence, the hatred, the split (in the country), everybody wants you to say exactly what they want. It’s very difficult.”

Youssef acknowledged initial episodes of the show’s third season upset some of his fans, but said their comic points had to be made.

“I wanted to tell the people, you know, this is not a tool to bring down regimes. We never thought of ourselves like this,” he said. “We were just, you know, cracking jokes about the status quo. And it’s a way to deal with our differences ... and I think it’s a very healthy cathartic way of freedom of expression.

“As a matter of fact, having a show like this reflects well on the government - that it allows something like this.”

Youssef’s program often stirred controversies, making him the target of many legal complaints. Authorities investigated him over the last episode on charges of disrupting public order and insulting Egypt and military leaders.

His popularity peaked during Mursi’s rule, when he targeted him and his Islamist allies with weekly mockery for mixing religion and politics.

Youssef also was briefly detained and released on bail under Mursi on accusations of insulting the president and Islam.

After Mursi’s ouster, many rights groups expressed concern about growing restrictions on freedom of expression as rampant nationalism made it difficult to criticize the government. Authorities have shut down several Islamist channels on accusation of inciting violence and hatred.

Since then, divisions have grown deeper. Hundreds have been killed in crackdowns on protesters demanding Mursi’s reinstatement. Attacks by Islamic extremists against security forces and Christians have increased. The media-promoted nationalist fervor gripping the country elevated the army to an untouchable status, leaving little tolerance among the public or officials for criticism, particularly of military Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, lionized as a hero.

“First of all you have a whole block of media that has been removed from the scene, you know, the Islamic channels. So you already have a one-sided media,” Youssef said.

“I think one of the reasons people got angry is that we spoke differently. We weren’t against the regime. But we weren’t totally 100 percent going with the flow.

He added: “And I have a problem with the present media. There’s a lot of propagating of fear and panic.”

While many political observers forecast that Sisi would win easily if he ran for office, Youssef says he has always hoped that the general will stick to a role he considers needed in the military.

“Of course if he runs for the presidency, he would win. I mean he, the guy, he’s very popular. There’s no question about it,” Youssef said. “But you know I just wish that he would step down and give a chance to people with equal chances.”

As for his old nemesis, Mursi, currently in a high security prison and facing charges that carry the death penalty, Youssef said he hopes the trial against him is conducted fairly and transparently.

Asked if he thought Mursi would receive a fair trial, Youssef said he had “no idea.”

“How can you predict something like this? I wish.”