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What We Can (and Can’t) Learn From the “Jon Stewart of Egypt”

A new book from Bassem Youssef explores the role of comedy in times of political unrest

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In late March 2013, the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef was arrested in his home country essentially for wearing a comically oversized hat. In theory, his joke is not different from what Norm Macdonald once posited during a legendary segment of Saturday Night Live’s “Celebrity Jeopardy” (“It’s funny … it’s bigger than a normal hat”), except the object of Youssef’s mockery was admittedly more powerful than Burt Reynolds. It was Egypt’s then-president, Mohammed Morsi, who had recently received an honorary doctorate while visiting Pakistan, and for the occasion had donned the university’s customary headpiece, which looked vaguely like a stovepipe. Morsi was a frequent target of Youssef’s ridicule, and on the next episode of his immensely popular satirical news show Al-Bernameg, Youssef took the stage in an exaggerated replica of the hat, which was 3 feet tall and weighed 40 pounds. Shortly after the show aired, Youssef’s lawyer called to say that there was a warrant out for his arrest, on four different charges: insulting the president, insulting Islam, disturbing the social peace, and, perhaps most dramatically, destroying the fabric of society. “How do you destroy the fabric of society?” Youssef asks in his wry new memoir, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring. “Scissors?”

(France 24)
(France 24)

Al-Bernameg was, by that point, the most popular show in the Arab world (it regularly drew 30 million viewers, which is about one-third of the Egyptian population). Youssef knew that his response would be highly publicized. He decided to turn himself in, and a large crowd of fans accompanied him in a show of support. “With all these cameras, I didn’t want a single photo showing me frowning or worried,” he writes in Revolution for Dummies. “I kept waving and smiling, holding the image of a smiling joker in the face of oppression.” He hammered this point home — defiantly, hilariously, and quite courageously — by wearing that giant hat on his way to the courthouse. It bobbed the whole way, a head above the sea of supporters.

If Americans have heard of Bassem Youssef, they probably know him as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt” — although he isn’t really anymore, because in 2014, after a suspension and a network change, the show was taken off the air. After Morsi was removed in a military coup, it became clear that Youssef would not go easy on the new leader, former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; some of the supposedly liberal Egyptian viewers who’d applauded him when he’d mocked Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood suddenly changed their tune. Then, after he was booted from the airwaves, he and his production company were fined for breach of contract and 50 million Egyptian pounds (about $6.5 million) were demanded from each. Youssef did not have the money; he fled the country shortly afterward, landing first in Dubai and eventually in the United States, where he currently resides. He admits now that his timing was not ideal. “Is it me?” he asks in Revolution for Dummies, which has enough President Trump references to suggest its ink is barely dry. “Am I bringing bad luck wherever I go? Am I a dictator magnet?”

Now that he’s living stateside, the American media and comedy world are treating him as a kind of Injustice Whisperer — a witty survivor of a heinous political situation who can hopefully give us pithy advice on our current climate. Last year, he hosted a 10-episode web series for Fusion called Democracy Handbook, which featured his commentary on a variety of American social issues; in one episode, he even went to a Trump rally. “I felt swept away with the xenophobia … the hate,” he later told Christiane Amanpour. “I felt quite at home.”

Youssef has been fielding Trump questions a lot in the past few weeks, on venues like The Late Show and The Daily Show, since he’s promoting both the book and the excellent documentary Tickling Giants (directed by Daily Show producer Sara Taksler, it chronicles Al-Bernameg’s run). He’s not here to offer anybody instantly gratifying solutions or false hope, nor is he ready to act like America has officially become a fascist state overnight. “You need at least a couple more decades of [authoritarian] dictatorship to know how to resist,” he joked with Samantha Bee on Full Frontal earlier this month. She told him that probably wasn’t going to fly here. “Americans don’t like to wait,” she said. “We get annoyed when we have to stir the mac and cheese halfway through the microwaving.”

Youssef deadpanned, “Good luck with the revolution.”

Bassem Youssef wasn’t involved in politics before the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, which didn’t make him that unusual in his country. Egypt’s revolution was, for a brief moment at least, a wake-up call that shook many laypeople out of a decades-long political slumber. “The police had crumbled before common folk armed only with fury,” writes Thanassis Cambanis in his Tahrir chronicle, Once Upon a Revolution. “[I]n a single day, Egyptians had learned that it was possible to fight the regime and win. This lesson could not be untaught.”

At the time of the Arab Spring, Hosni Mubarak had been president for 30 years; his regime was tumultuous and authoritarian, but as Youssef points out in his book, to many Egyptians, even the ones who opposed Mubarak, it just felt like a given. Egyptians figured that things would probably not change much if Mubarak went through with his plan to name his son as his successor. “If an Arab president decides his son is the next president, you can object, but it won’t change anything,” Youssef writes.

But in December 2010, a revolution happened in Tunisia, where an impassioned group of protesters eventually forced the country’s longtime president out of office. In January 2011, millions of people flooded the streets of Cairo and other major cities to kick off a countrywide protest; after 18 days of mounting pressure, Mubarak finally stepped down in February. Like so many others feeling the rush of sudden liberation, Youssef says in his book that he was drawn like a magnet to the center of the action, Tahrir Square. When he wasn’t working at makeshift medical clinics on the outskirts of the square, he was engaged in conversations with protesters.

At the time he wasn’t a professional comedian; Youssef was a heart surgeon, waiting for his H1B Visa to come in the mail so he could move to the U.S. and take a job in Cleveland. While Youssef was waiting for his papers, his friend Tarek ElKazzaz persuaded him to star in a short YouTube show he wanted to make. (“Bassem Youssef: No Revelations,” Youssef jokes.) The revolution happened just as they were sketching out the first few episodes, so they quickly pivoted to a more current-events-focused, Jon Stewart–inspired program that relied on reporting from the square and tapped into the energy of the moment. The first episode of The B+ Show (named for Youssef’s blood type) skewered some of the TV pundits who’d been denouncing the protesters; they filmed it on a set they’d constructed in Youssef’s laundry room. Within two months, it had been viewed 5 million times.

From there, Youssef’s viral-era, whiplash-inducing rise-and-fall story unfolded in just under four years. Within months he received multiple offers to bring the web series to TV; his U.S. visa arrived at the same time as his best TV deal. “It was a simple choice between a life of empty stardom, fame, and money … or saving lives,” he writes, a little facetiously. Al-Bernameg had a huge impact on his country, and if it didn’t save any lives, it certainly changed millions of them. As Tickling Giants illustrates, the show gave the people of Egypt (the younger generation in particular) a vocabulary to talk about what was happening to them, and Al-Bernameg’s humor was a much-needed pressure-release valve. By the end of its run, it had become the most popular TV show in his country’s history.

And by then it had already become clear to many Egyptians that they’d simply replaced one dictator with another. A guy who’d realized this — and who happened to have a loyal audience of 30 million people — was a threat.

The Big Funny Hat was only the beginning of the downfall, since by the end of that day Youssef had been released on bail. Still, at the courthouse that day in 2013, he’d been questioned for almost six hours about his jokes. In Revolution for Dummies, he sets a surreal scene of bureaucratic ineptitude: The officials interrogating him were trying to screen clips of his show, but they couldn’t get the files working on their computer because they were running an old version of Windows 95. They finally gave up and took to reading his own scripts aloud, line by line, and asking him to explain each of his jokes. To make matters more absurd, many of the people in the interrogation room were laughing at the jokes, because they were obviously funny. It had already been difficult for Youssef to take the authorities seriously, but after their bumbling interrogation it became impossible. A few months later he’d host his hero, Jon Stewart, on an episode of Al-Bernameg, and there the American comedian would utter a mantra that ricocheted internationally across social media: “If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime.”

So far, in America, that quip has proved prescient for a resistance movement dealing with Trump, a man who is frequently rattled by jokes at his expense. (Look no further than his Twitter account for confirmation.) Barbed humor has become a trademark at anti-Trump protests; at the Women’s March in particular, it felt like protesters were using humor as a collective strategy of resistance. But Youssef’s story reminds us, too, of the ways in which humor can be a luxury. The tenor of the Tahrir Square protests was different from that of the protests of Trump’s America because although we are living through unprecedented times in our democracy, we are not actually living in a dictatorship. Egypt was, and still is, and as such its protests were considerably more violent. In those 18 days between the beginning of the protest and Mubarak’s removal, at least 846 people were killed.

There are certainly lessons about resistance and revolution to be learned from the Arab Spring, but Youssef’s plight reminds us that not all revolutions — and the jokes we tell about them — are quite the same. Comparing our burgeoning national resistance movement to the Arab Spring is like comparing apples to … well, oranges.

Saturday afternoon, the IFC Center hosted a Q&A with Youssef and Taksler following a sold-out screening of Tickling Giants. “I feel like I have about a million things I want to ask you,” one woman said, implying that many of these hypothetical questions were about President Trump. Another asked if he regretted the decision to “choose” a career as a political satirist over one as a doctor. “Everything that happened to me since 2011,” Youssef said earnestly, “I haven’t ‘chosen.’”

Youssef was as quick-witted as ever, but there was a palpable melancholy whenever someone asked him a question about himself and his future. One man asked, with a certain Western naiveté, if Youssef would ever consider returning to Egypt if the “cultural situation” in the country ever “changed.” Youssef shook his head and said it wasn’t that simple. “I just don’t see it happening any time soon,” he said. The most powerful thing about Youssef’s presence in public appearances these days is that, divorced from that home-turf pressure of always putting on the defiantly happy face, he no longer tries to bury all his sorrow with jokes. He remains an innately funny and charming comedian, but he does not let you forget that he is still a man in exile who may never get to see his home country again. Although his wife and daughter have since settled with him in the U.S., his status with Egyptian authorities has still affected his family life: When his father died in a car accident shortly after Youssef got to America, it was too risky for the comedian to go home for the funeral.

Revolution for Dummies has a slight tinge of performance; as with many books written by comedians that bear the weight of being “about” something larger than their comedy, there’s a ba-dum-tss rhythm to the telling that doesn’t always suit the material. But, true to its title, it is an entertaining and eminently readable book about a Middle Eastern country written for Americans, and in a time of widespread Islamophobia born of ignorance and misunderstanding, it can serve as an invaluable corrective. If you have been bluffing your way through political conversations pretending to know the differences between Islamists and secular Muslims, or Mubarak and Morsi, Youssef’s book is an easy, painless way to rectify that error.

It’s Tickling Giants, though, that really captures the essence of Youssef’s fearless comedy and the scrappy collective energy of Al-Bernameg. Taksler wisely focuses not only on the show’s host, but on the lively crew of writers and researchers — young men and women alike — who got this unlikely enterprise on the air week after week for several tumultuous years. They are Egypt’s youth: perhaps more politically engaged than their parents’ generation, because they’ve seen the drastic change that can come from activism, perhaps at the same time more jaded than their parents, because they’ve seen how quickly things can go back to the way they were. Youssef has called the book a warning to Americans of what a country can become, but most immediately Revolution for Dummies and Tickling Giants are reminders of the satirical tools at our disposal and freedoms we still have, even in what seem like dystopian times. This is, in 2017, not a country where Donald Trump can shut down Saturday Night Live or deport Alec Baldwin for making fun of him. And as much as we might miss Jon Stewart, the airwaves are now populated with alums from his show, from Samantha Bee to John Oliver to Stephen Colbert, irreverently calling the administration’s bullshit on a weekly or nightly basis. That makes us lucky. In Egypt, for almost three years now, there’s been an Al-Bernameg–shaped void.