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When it comes to protest, Egypt’s lost its sense of humour

Those seeking to criticise Bassem Youssef have provided him with enough material to make a whole episode based on mocking and pillorying the attacks he has endured.

Aweek ago, Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef returned to television screens, attracting a huge audience for his first episode since the ousting of Mohammed Morsi.

In the space of less than an hour, he managed to reportedly offend both sides of the military-Islamist divide in Egypt. It was the most blatant criticism to be voiced of the military establishment thus far on Egyptian television. If the jokes were not all equally appreciated, the pro-military camp could not easily dismiss Youssef’s points.

The attention given to the return of the show did not stop with its broadcast: Egyptian society has engaged with that single episode in a variety of ways ever since, resulting in a huge amount of media analysis and attention. But what does that debate say about society, where a satirical television show is given so much attention? Moreover, what does it say about society when other far more pressing issues are not given attention?

The vehement opposition towards Youssef’s show from the anti-Morsi camp is intriguing. Youssef supported the protests that preceded Mr Morsi’s ousting and did not especially object to the road map that was then outlined by General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the defence minister.

While the TV show was critical, it could hardly be described as attacking Gen El Sisi. Nevertheless, in its aftermath, the television station that airs Youssef’s show felt obliged to distance itself from the programme and to publicly reassert its support for the “June 30 Revolution”. It was a peculiar position to take. If one of the purported aims of that revolution was the protection of human rights and the like, surely the airing of a television programme, even one that people disagreed with, would show the success of that revolution?

Previously, under Mr Morsi’s tenure, Youssef was charged with insulting the president and Islam. Little came of those charges, although Mr Morsi’s last speech before June 30 indicated harsh measures against the media were imminent.

At the time, Youssef was defended by a slew of non-Islamist figures in Egypt. Yet now, many support the bringing of new charges against him, using much of the same argument that was used under Mr Morsi.

No less than four court cases have been filed against Youssef; one of them had its first hearing a few days ago.

It’s not particularly surprising that there were rival protests outside Youssef’s studio early this week, as he filmed the episode that is due to air tonight. Protesting has almost become a national pastime in Egypt.

Nevertheless, the attention over the past week is concerning for many reasons, not the least of which is that so many Egyptians are talking so much about a single television show.

For the past week, Youssef’s El Bernameg programme has become the story that has overshadowed everything else.

Egypt’s story, however, is the same as it has been for the past three years. It remains a country of great promise, which seems incapable of fulfilling that promise without tackling three key issues: restructuring the security sector; reforming the judicial establishment; and rethinking the national economy.

Those problems led Egypt to the January 25 revolution in 2011 and have continued to complicate the beleaguered transitional process since then.

Moving forward, one hopes that Egypt’s intelligentsia will spend more time focusing on these issues than on a television programme.

The same factors that caused the country to erupt in 2011 still exist. Indeed, in certain ways, they have worsened: security reform is a hope rather than a reality, with substantial loss of life as a consequence. Addressing problems within the judiciary and the politicisation of significant portions of the judiciary has become a clear necessity.

As for the national economy, despite the presence of some of Egypt’s most accomplished economists in the interim government, a full-fledged reform plan is yet to be unveiled.

In the 1990s and the 2000s, Turkey benefited greatly from the European Union accession process – not necessarily because it became closer to actually becoming a member of the EU (the jury is still out on that one), but because, in the process, Turkey was obliged to conduct major reforms within the country.

Turkey, as a country, benefited a great deal from the experience. One hopes that Egypt’s friends and partners in the international community – particularly those that support it moving towards a more stable and sustainable model – would encourage that transition with specific targets with regard to reforms.

Otherwise, Egypt will inevitably find itself trapped in the same cycle – because those three major flaws in the state can do little else but ensure that the citizenry will react forcefully against it.

It is issues like these that the Egyptian media and intelligentsia ought to be discussing and proposing solutions to, rather than focusing on Youssef’s show.

There is a silver lining for Youssef in all this. Those who seek to criticise him have provided his team with more than enough material to make a whole episode based on mocking and pillorying the attacks he has endured.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, Brookings and ISPU

On Twitter: @Hahellyer

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