Suspending Political Satire in Egypt


Bassem Youssef’s popular Egyptian television show ‘El Bernameg’ was recently suspended for mocking the current military installed government in Egypt. Youssef hosts the popular satellite program which is modeled on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  Being one of the most widely watched satirists in the Arab world, Youssef himself is often referred to as ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’. He has a following of millions on Facebook and Twitter along with one of the most popular Egyptian YouTube channels.

Youssef visiting 'The Daily Show' last April.

Youssef visiting ‘The Daily Show’ last April.

Youssef received attention in the United States earlier this year with an April appearance on The Daily Show, and Stewart would later appear on El Bernameg in June.  Now, Youssef is being subjected to shifting public perceptions of his brand of political humor in the aftermath of the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi’s government last July.

Al-Ahram online reports that Egypt is reverting back to ‘old practices of censorship and state control of media, now joined by public intolerance for criticism of transitional authorities.’  In a political environment where the military regime is widely portrayed as Egypt’s national saviors, public criticism can bring a swift backlash from authorities, with Youssef recently becoming a prominent example.

A former cardiac surgeon, Youssef launched El Bernameg in March 2011 after restrictions on media were relaxed with Mubarak’s downfall. As multiple media outlets flourished after the revolution, Youssef became a satellite television sensation on the network Capital Broadcast Center (CBC). The popularity of his program has highlighted the political fault lines in post-revolutionary Egypt. His show is predominantly popular with urban youth and secular revolutionaries who initiated the 2011 uprisings, while the targets of his barbs often included conservative clerics and Islamist politicians.

Youssef satirizing former President Mohammed Morsi in 2012.

Youssef satirizing former President Mohammed Morsi in 2012.

After the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, Youssef’s satire of the Morsi government led to his arrest after being accused of ‘insulting President Morsi and disturbing public order.’ The Independent labeled this arrest a ‘political witch hunt’ intended to silence Youssef. The charges would later be dismissed as Morsi and his allies lost the political support that led to their downfall last summer.

Currently, Youssef finds himself in trouble with Cairo’s new regime. In the aftermath of the military overthrow and crackdown on Morsi and his supporters, the current military backed government has also cracked down on media with the arrest and military trials of three journalists this year. Last August, Al-Jazeera’s Egyptian channel was also raided and declared ‘illegal’ by Egyptian authorities on the basis of threatening national security.

Reporters without Borders has condemned the military government’s ‘new wave of attacks on freedom of information’ towards media professionals in Egypt. The Egyptian military not only controls large portions of Egypt’s economy, but considers itself a sacrosanct institution in the nation’s politics. Youssef seems to have crossed a red line in challenging this notion, warning “that fascism in the name of religion will be replaced by fascism in the name of patriotism and national security.” His employers at CBC subsequently suspended El Bernameg minutes before airtime and read a statement that the show was on indefinite hiatus due to ‘contractual and content issues.’ Prosecutors have also launched an investigation into Youssef’s remarks.

It is uncertain if the show will soon return to air in the current political climate. A recent poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research indicated that nearly 48 percent of Egyptians opposed the decision to suspend Youssef, while 44 percent supported it. The owner of CBC, Mohamed Al-Amin, is said to have close links to the former Mubarak regime and current military rulers. This would help explain why the CBC network had previously allowed Youssef to satirize the Morsi government but promptly pulled the switch on satire directed towards the military. Although Secretary of State John Kerry has commended the Egyptian military for deposing Morsi and restoring democracy, early crackdowns on press freedoms are less than encouraging for a purported democratic transition.

As Youssef awaits the fate of his show, he is scheduled to receive the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. After being recognized earlier this year as one of Time’s ‘100 most influential people the world,’ mentor and friend Jon Stewart reflected on Youssef’s recent accomplishments by concluding; “I am an American satirist, and Bassem Youssef is my hero.”

This entry was posted in Al Jazeera, Arab Spring, Censorship, Diplomacy, Egypt, Free Speech, Freedom of Expression, Globalization, Human Rights, Journalism, Media, Media Repression, Middle East. Bookmark the permalink.

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