CAIRO // He’s the surgeon-turned-comedian who, with the help of a weekly television show, has been credited with introducing Egyptians to a level of freedom of expression few have experienced before.
Since bursting on the scene nearly two years ago, Bassem Youssef, has been ridiculing politicians of all ideological shades with an irreverence that would once have been unthinkable.
No one has been spared, from Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood to clerics on religious TV channels, Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.
His satirical programme has earned him several dates in court, including one case in which he was accused of “insulting” Morsi – a charge that could land him in jail if convicted. In other cases, filed by allies of the president, his programme is blamed for being seditious or disturbing the nation’s peace.
As if that were not enough, on January 11 Youssef’s programme broadcast video clips dating back to 2010 in which Morsi, then a Brotherhood leader who could have only dreamt of becoming president two years later, refers to “Zionists” as “bloodsuckers who attack Palestinians” as well as “the descendants of apes and pigs”.
In another clip, also dating back to 2010, he urges Egyptians to nurse their children on “hatred for them: for Zionists, for Jews. They must be breast-fed hatred”. He also calls the US president Barack Obama a liar.
Curiously, Israel’s reaction was muted, with one unnamed official saying the Jewish state did not want to make a big deal of Morsi’s comments because relations are already tense with the rise of the Islamists to power in the most populous Arab nation.
Not so muted was the reaction of the Obama administration. In a strongly-worded statement, Morsi’s comments were described as “deeply offensive” and the Egyptian leader was called on to publicly repudiate them.
The fallout from Morsi’s comments spilled over into a high-profile visit by a US Senate delegation to Egypt led by the former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, who said he and his colleagues expressed their “strong disapproval” to the Egyptian leader. Morsi later issued a statement in which¿ he declared his respect for all monotheistic faiths.
Youssef has not been tempted to gloat over the uproar that he created, and has made ¿no mention of the US-Egyptian flap in subsequent broadcasts.
Instead, he has continued with his usual fare of political satire, including questioning Morsi’s claim during his election campaign that he worked as a consultant for the US space agency Nasa in the 1980s when he was in America studying for his PhD in mechanical engineering.
Youssef’s rise to fame in Egypt began on the Internet, when he filmed the show with a team of amateurs and posted it on YouTube during the early days of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011.
The posts received hundreds of thousands of hits and his success got the attention of the private TV network ONTV, which hired him later that year.
Late last year, he moved to the hugely popular CBC network, where he started off with an episode in which he poked fun at colleagues on the channel who host serious political shows, earning the wrath of the veteran political show host Imad Adeeb, who threatened to sue him.
Youssef’s brand of political satire is new in Egypt. Although the rule of Morsi, the first freely elected president, is seen by critics to echo Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime, freedom of expression has reached a level never before experienced by Egyptians.
However, this may not last – a fragility of which the nation’s free media icons, including Youssef, are well aware. In one recent programme, a “revolutionary” choir performed a song ridiculing Morsi as power hungry.
“Listen to them, not by your ears alone, but your hearts and minds,” they sang. “Listen to them because they may get arrested after they leave the studio.”