Satirists as political voices: The road ahead

The success of comedians has rested on their ability to deploy a balance between the two types of satire: The Horatian and the Juvenalian

Joe Khalil
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Perhaps it is because the idea of managing artists or intellectuals has tempted economic and/or political elites from the Greeks and the Romans to the Americans and the Arabs. Perhaps it is because I chuckle every time I read a text in the Western press invoking freedom of speech and comparing the Egyptian surgeon-turned-TV host, Bassem Youssef, to the American comedy show presenter, Jon Stewart. Or perhaps it is because I hear the drums of war every time Lebanese comedy writer/director Charbel Khalil (no relation) decides to impersonate Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Perhaps it is because of all of this and much more that the suspension of Youssef’s satirical show al-Bernameg (The Program) in Egypt and the street protests against Khalil’s Bass Mat Watan (The Smiles of a Nation or The Nation is Dead) in Lebanon did not come as a surprise. But even in this bleak moment, can we consider the possibilities for satirists to play a role as political voices? Politics here is to be understood as advancing a particular set of beliefs or principles about the total complex of relations between people living in society. And after all, satire is a genre that uses various degrees of ridicule with the intent of shaming individuals, institutions or society itself into improvement.


So far, the success of these comedians has rested on their ability to deploy a balance between the two types of satire: The Horatian and the Juvenalian. Named after the Roman poet Horace, the first type views the target as foolish rather than evil, and therefore adopts good-natured, almost affectionate, lighthearted comic skills. Named after another Roman, Juvenal, the second type of satire relentlessly mocks its target as an outright evil, using contemptuous, abrasive, and scornful tactics. Moving beyond the politico-military-economic-local-regional conspiracy theories against these shows or their targets, the current backlash is primarily the outcome of an imbalance in their adoption of satire types. This is analysis, not an accusation.

Different generations

Khalil and Youssef are very different, and they represent two generations of television comedians. The first was born on local television and nurtured in the satellite era, while the latter was born on YouTube and later cultivated on satellite television. But they are also very similar, as they both remind us of the crucial level of mediation between political ideologies and economic interests in television industry. For LBCI (or LDC), Bass Mat Wattan has been the most watched show in its category for more than 17 years. For CBC, al-Bernameg was the channel’s major investment with an estimated $2 million in production costs—just for the first season.

So comedians use, and are used, by the ruling political or economic elite to advance an inherently dialectic proposition that may eventually contribute to their demise

Joe Khalil

Whether in film or television, the support elites historically granted to comedians extended beyond financial and moral support; the comedians became model intellectuals or artists whose work was essential to the public. In Syria, we witnessed the rise of Duraid Lahham as comedian/conscience of Baathist party members criticizing corruption but never the regime that protects it. In Egypt, Adel Imam joined the Mubarak regime’s battle against Islamists, ridiculing their looks, mocking their behaviors and trivializing their plights.

So comedians use, and are used, by the ruling political or economic elite to advance an inherently dialectic proposition that may eventually contribute to their demise. By choosing a Horatian approach they risk failing to instigate or bring about any change, while adopting a Juvenalian approach might leave them without a platform and without an audience.

Consequently, it is perhaps evident that comedians cannot become full political voices – as commentators and participants. Khalil, who belongs to the satellite era, seems incapable of moving beyond the commentator’s position bound by financial and political engagements. On the other hand, Youssef has taken his satire center stage, online and on TV, and has managed to be validated by the only force that matters: The public, only to be stripped of his studio, broadcast time and consequently an audience.

But, before we reach such a hasty conclusion, let us remember that Youssef and his generation found in online comedy a platform for social change, a space to interact, share, and mobilize. They became empowered to be producers and consumers of media. They are as diverse as the tools (websites, YouTube channels, Vimeo, Facebook) and the formats (satirical songs, stand-ups, web series, vblogs, vines, keeks) they adopt. And they are available across the region in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Perhaps even more importantly, they have managed so far to eschew political-economic control. As we know, online is not a utopia but it’s a relatively freer space, as the uprisings have demonstrated.

So, if the purpose of satire is to instigate or bring about change in society, isn’t it then more effective for Youssef to go back to YouTube? When criticism is phrased online, it is easier to witness audience interaction. Think about the 1.6 million Facebook followers of Youssef and the 118 million views of his clips. Does that beat television’s exposure? Perhaps not! But so far, it seems that “gaz and achohol don’t mix” – as former President Mursi declared. Whether or not they should continue this mix is a difficult decision for Youssef, his team and the political-economic elite.


Joe F. Khalil, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has more than fifteen years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with major Arab satellite channels. He is the author of Arab Satellite Entertainment Television: Opportunities for Public Diplomacy (2009) and co-author of Arab Television Industries (2010).

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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