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How’s the revolution going? Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef answers (satirically)

February 16, 2016 at 6:30 PM EDT
Last week Egypt marked the five-year anniversary of the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. But the road forward has been slow and tumultuous. Jeffrey Brown talks to Bassem Youssef, the political satirist some call the "Jon Stewart of Egypt,” who was targeted and arrested by the government, about the role of humor as a tool to upset taboos.

GWEN IFILL: But, first, last week marked five years since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was removed from power after the so-called 18 days of revolution.

But the path forward has been tumultuous. Our coverage of these 5 Years On concludes with a conversation with a man who’s often called the Jon Stewart of Egypt.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: As revolution swept through Egypt in 2011, Bassem Youssef and several friends started a political satire show on YouTube broadcast from his laundry room.

Nine episodes and five million views later, Youssef was offered a weekly show on an Egyptian television network. With his caustic wit and ironic takedowns, he lampooned the successive government of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and the military’s Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Honors and trouble followed. In 2013, he recognized as one of “TIME” magazine’s 100 most influential people and received a Press Freedom Award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. But that same year, he was investigated and interrogated by the Morsi government on charges of insulting the president.

The military government that deposed Morsi in a coup was no more friendlier to Youssef’s brand of political humor. His show was canceled in 2014 and he left Egypt.

Youssef now lives in Dubai. I reached him on a recent visit to this country. And when I asked him how he would describe the political situation in Egypt today, he began in full satirical mode.

BASSEM YOUSSEF, Egyptian Humorist: Oh, it’s perfect. It’s so democratic. We absolutely have no problem. Political satire shows like mine are still going on, on the air. There is absolutely no crackdown on freedom of speech. Everything is lovey-dovey and it’s beautiful.

JEFFREY BROWN: And everything you just said is completely untrue, right?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: I — your words, not mine. Everything is — it’s perfect.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, five years later, do you think that people wonder — do you yourself wonder what happened or even whether it was all worth it?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, here’s the thing.

I think, in a day and age of instant gratification and instant retweets and shares and likes, people think that things come easily. But they don’t. If you look at revolutions and change all over history and other parts of the world, change didn’t come in 18 days, which we are — we and the rest of the world was basically naive, think that we can actually get rid of a dictatorship in 18 days.

A revolution is not an event. It’s a process. And it takes its time.

JEFFREY BROWN: In your own work, you came up against two very powerful forces in Egyptian life, right, religion and the military.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, religion and nationalism is basically flip sides of the same coin.

These are stuff that are always used in order to push back on the dissent and opposition and criticism. And I was accused during the Muslim Brotherhood of being an infidel, of someone who doesn’t like Islam, or who have some sort of a — I want to insult religion. And, afterwards, I was accused of insulting the army, insulting the military.

And these are the stuff that is extremely sensitive. And people wouldn’t even go into a discussion of what I actually said and they would assume that I actually meant to insult religion or insult the army.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you were hugely popular. You were reaching a lot of people. Yet you still felt you had to stop and leave the country, out of fear for yourself and your family?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, at the end of the day, when you have — you need a window.

And that window or the windows, broadcast channels and networks, at the end of the day, they are also under a lot of pressure. And you could continue — you cannot continue with the pressure being overwhelming on everybody.

That’s why I chose — I opted for the choice of safety for me and my family and people around me, because even — sometimes, they don’t even come and touch you. They — some other people that will be hurt because of what you say. People are not even related to the show, but, like, related to you. So, I need to think on the bigger picture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Looking back, what role did satire play, and what role might it still play in Egypt?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, satire will continue to exist after the show.

I didn’t invent satire. I didn’t come up with it. And it will continue to be a very powerful tool to disrupt political taboos and social taboos and religious taboos, because those taboos are always used to control and to curb people’s way of creativity and thinking, by making them feel guilty because they want to make a change.

Satire liberates you from all of these restrictions. And it’s still used by young people on the Internet and online. And it will not stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the limits of satire? Have you come to think that people perhaps expect too much of it and its ability to effect change?


I think it’s true in all parts of the world, but, at the end of the day, a satirist or a comedian only has his voice. We just bring it up to the people for discussion. And if people don’t make a change, you cannot continue to operate in a vacuum.

It is — and so that’s why people have this sort of slacktivism, not activism even. They’re just, like, protected by a — behind their keyboards and by their screens. And they think that, like, laughing at something will solve things.

They need to move and do the change themselves. At the end of the day, a satirist or a comedian has a very, very limited role.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you, is it still possible to live and work in Egypt now?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: I am not there right now. And that is my answer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bassem Youssef, thank you so much.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Thank you very much.