Bassem Youssef’s questioning a sign of regime in quandary

Abdullah Kamal
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The dilemma of Egypt’s new rulers is that they came to power as a result of a radical change in the country, but they refuse to accept other results of this change.

Abdullah Kamal

In late February, a TV interviewer asked Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi if satirical shows irk him. “If satirism is part of a constructive entertainment program, then it isn’t bad,” answered Mursi. “But if it is presented within a defamatory, destructive framework, I don’t accept it and hope this won’t happen. The people’s time should not be wasted in useless nonsense.”

The president did not tell the difference between “constructive” and “destructive” satirism. He betrayed a complicated stand towards such shows. In fact, he proved that not only does he resent them, but also wishes they never existed.

When an arrest warrant was issued at the weekend against Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s most celebrated TV satirist allegedly for insulting Islam and mocking the president, it became clear that Mursi’s wishes are being fulfilled.

A day before the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of Youssef, the satirist poked fun time and again at Mursi. At the beginning of his popular show El Bernameg (The Program), Youssef expressed special thanks to the president for providing him with enough material for his humorous show. Youssef also reminded the president of the crisis in which he had landed by broadcasting a videotaped address given by Mursi four years ago, i.e. before becoming president, in which he lashed out at the U.S. and branded anyone dealing with it as a “traitor.” The video broadcasting reinforced a media message questioning the credibility of Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood group.

Butt of public satire

Since November, only two episodes of Youssef’s weekly show did not include sardonic criticism of Mursi, making him the butt of public satire. Many Egyptians are keen to reserve seats at local cafes to watch Youssef’s show, as though it were a national soccer game.

Still, Youssef’s harshest criticism of the Islamist leader was not sharp humor, but videotapes trawled from addresses made by Mursi before elected president. In one footage, Mursi is seen calling Jews the “descendants of monkeys and pigs;” in another, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide could be heard telling Mursi what he should say; in a third, Mursi is seen accusing anyone dealing with the U.S. of being a “traitor.”

A probe with Youssef is unlikely to go to great lengths. Yet, issuing an arrest warrant against him exposes a highly complicated crisis of the regime in Egypt, not limited to Youssef’s show.

Last week, Mursi vowed in public to take tough measures to “protect the country.” Days later, arrest warrants were issued against prominent opposition activists allegedly for inciting violence against Brotherhood backers near the group’s headquarters in Cairo. The message was that key revolutionaries could be punished.

Shortly after, the arrest warrant was issued against Youssef although the complaints had been filed against him by Brotherhood followers weeks earlier. The message this time is that the showdown against the media could target celebrated personalities too.

Both steps partly point to two key categories of anti-Brotherhood opponents: radical revolutionaries and the media people. Also, the steps show that law is being manipulated against the opposition and any outspoken critic of Mursi and the Brotherhood. The tradition now is that an investigation is ordered every time a group of Brotherhood followers lodge complaints against opponents.

In recent weeks, complaints have been filed against Ahmed el-Zend, the head of the Judges’Union (an independent judicial association), accusing him of seizing state-owned land. El Zend is an outspoken critic of presidential decisions violating the judiciary’s independence.

Similarly, complaints have been filed against Tahani el-Jibali, an ex-judge at the Supreme Constitutional Court, allegedly for inciting the overthrow of the regime. El Jibali is a vociferous critic of the Brotherhood.

Former presidential contender Ahmed Shafiq, who claimed fraud in the presidential results, is at the center of several court cases. Meanwhile, Mohammed el-Amin, owner of the CBC TV that broadcasts Youssef’s show, was summoned for questioning over alleged waste of public money.

The Sawiris business family, who left Egypt, are accused of tax evasion and requested to pay LE14 billion ($2.05 billion) in overdue taxes. The Sawiris have already withdrawn some of its investments from Egypt. Earlier, several complaints filed against the opposition leaders Mohammed ElBaradei and Hamadeen Sabahi had been dropped.

On the other hand, Mursi and the Brotherhood are under intense pressure from members in the group and Islamist allies to take stringent moves against opponents. Guests on pro-Brotherhood TV stations have recently urged the president to strike hard at his opponents. One militant cleric has recently accused Mursi of being too weak to manage a hen coop. “He (Mursi) is so wavering that kids in the streets threaten to depilate my beard,” fumed the cleric.

This criticism has recently become more pronounced echoing anger among Brotherhood followers after they were assaulted by secular demonstrators near the group’s headquarters.

The Egyptian minister of waqfs (religious endowments) on Friday called media “Egypt’s affliction.” While satirical TV shows are a key component of an unabated media campaign against Mursi and the Brotherhood, they cater for a public mood unprecedentedly critical of the president. This growing trend was tackled in a previous article posted on Al Arabiya.Net.

However, Youssef’s “El Bernameg” stands out as the most satirical show never known before in Egypt. The program, modeled on famed U.S. shows, runs counter to the Brotherhood’s values, mainly utter obedience. At the same time, “El Bernameg” reflects a culture expressing a new generation of Egyptians spawned by the 2011 uprising. On his show, Youssef is not satisfied with making jokes and humor. He uses the show as a weekly forum for presenting types of music and songs giving insight into the new generation’s culture, which contradicts the Brotherhood’s values.

The world media in reaction to the hounding of Youssef who has become an icon. While the probe with Youssef apparently seeks to curtail his satirical jibes, the news of issuing a warrant against him has triggered massive denunciations at home and abroad. The move has further boosted the credibility and popularity of “El Bernameg.”

The measure against the popular satirist is unlikely to withstand these criticisms. Nor would it provide a solution to the crisis of the ruling system that is beset by cultural challenges as well as accumulated economic and political woes.

The dilemma of Egypt’s new rulers is that they came to power as a result of a radical change in the country, but they refuse to accept other results of this change.


Abdullah Kamal is an Egyptian journalist and political analyst, an adviser to Al Rai Kuwaiti newspaper in Cairo, working now on writing a book about the end of Mubarak era under the title of The Penultimate Pharaoh. The writer has previously held positions as editor- in- chief of both Rose El-Youssef magazine and newspaper (2005 – 2011) and a member of Shoura Council (2007 – 2011). He can be reached on Twitter: @abkamal

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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