In March 2011, a heart surgeon named Bassem Youssef living in Cairo was inspired to produce Youtube videos in which he provided satirical commentary on the Mubarak dictatorship that rapidly grew viral, so much so that he landed a weekly TV show titled “The Show” that enjoyed the same kind of popularity. He had an audience of 30 million people, while Jon Stewart’s show, which Youssef openly credits as his inspiration, never reached more than 2 million.
His meteoric rise and his demise under General al-Sisi’s dictatorship are documented in a film titled “Tickling Giants” that opens today at the IFC in NY and a number of other cities a week later (check http://ticklinggiants.com/ for venues.) It is directed by Sara Taksler, a senior producer for “The Jon Stewart Show” who decided to make a documentary about Youssef after he made a guest appearance there in June 2012.
When you see excerpts from Youssef’s show, the influence of Jon Stewart is unmistakable. From the body language of the host, his grimaces, to the mocking of the high and mighty, you are reminded that comedy is universal.
As amusing as the film is, it has a deadly serious mission, which is to demonstrate how the hopes of Tahrir Square were dashed by both the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi and the military coup that toppled it.
Youssef reached 30 million viewers because his show articulated the yearnings of the Egyptian people for freedom of expression, an end to military or clerical authoritarianism and the sort of crony capitalism that pervades the entire region. Despite his obviously secular identity, Youssef was beloved by observant Muslims of the lower classes who felt victimized by the nation’s one-percent.
Like most Egyptians, Youssef and his staff were jubilant over Mubarak’s resignation but felt short-changed by the election of Morsi, whose attempts at consolidating an Islamic state in the style of Erdogan’s AKP were a clear violation of the democratic spirit of the Arab Spring. When Youssef began mocking Morsi, who is a tempting target, there was widespread support.
The election of Generaal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was greeted in the same gloves off spirit. It made no difference to Youssef who was the head of state. If the regime continued to operate in the same fashion as Mubarak but with cosmetic changes, he would go for the jugular. What he didn’t anticipate was the degree to which a fanatical reactionary base could be assembled to agitate against his show and the partnership it formed with the media establishment in Egypt that viewed him as a threat to the el-Sisi regime. The ruling class had decided to clamp down on civil liberties and Bassem Youssef was unacceptable for his alleged insults to the army and to the Egyptian nation.
While watching this extremely compelling documentary, I could not help but think of President Trump who is drawing from the same bag of tricks as al-Sisi but with a lot less license to kill. Two hundred and thirty years of bourgeois democracy creates institutions that are much more deeply rooted than what exists in Egypt.
In November 2016, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was the first head of state in the Arab world to congratulate Trump on his electoral victory to the dismay of those Egyptians who used to be loyal fans of Bassem Youssef’s “The Show”. For Trump, al-Sisi was a “fantastic guy” whose coup against the Muslim Brotherhood was praiseworthy: “He took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.”
According to Juan Cole, the dictator al-Sisi got on the phone with Bashar al-Assad after his meeting with Trump to gloat over the green light he got from the White House to crush “the terrorists”. With Trump cementing ties to Netanyahu, al-Sisi and Assad, it continues to amaze me that anybody on the left can continue to maintain illusions about him being an alternative to Hillary Clinton.
With Assad firmly in control of much of Syria today, it is easy to give in to a sense of futility. In the press notes, Youssef is asked to comment about the feeling Egyptians might have about the Arab Spring being a failure. His response is one that should be considered by those succumbing to the same sort of feelings:
Nothing is stagnant. We live in a very dynamic world and things change all the time. Four years ago, we never thought that we, in Egypt, would get rid of a dictator and start this kind of a political and cultural revolution, but it suddenly happened. And who could have imagined me, a doctor, of all people, becoming this media star? Unimaginable. You never know what will happen. We are living now in a much faster era. In the Middle East, we have a huge younger generation that is more connected. Oppressive governments can’t control the internet like they could with television networks and newspapers. They can’t rule people with the same methods that were employed on their parents in 1950s and ‘60s – outdated, obsolete kind of propaganda that people will not buy into it for the rest of their lives.
I am optimistic. I don’t think the revolution is dead. It’s just sleeping for now. When will people wake up again? I don’t know. Maybe in my lifetime. Maybe my daughter will carry on “The Show, Part Two.” She is very feisty and she’s much funnier than me and she’s only three years old. So she has a lot of time to practice.