x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bassem Youssef and the death of a revolutionary idea

With the satirist's departure, the ability to question authority and state power might not disappear – but will leave many Egyptians wondering: “if Bassem is gone, then what hope is there for me?”

When Bassem Youssef began his talk show in 2011, shortly after Hosni Mubarak resigned, he became an overnight sensation. The recent cancellation of his show is another key event and the Egyptian and Arab media are much poorer for his absence.

Youssef’s show is, in many ways, a chronicle of the unfulfilled promise of the Egyptian revolution. He was in Tahrir Square during the historic days of January and February 2011 and then began his show on YouTube, charting the events of the uprising until the summer of the following year. Then he took his show to new heights – recording episodes before a live audience in the heart of downtown Cairo. Other talk shows confined themselves to Media City outside the city, but Youssef and his team always wanted to be able to say that they felt the pulse of the capital.

Last week, Youssef announced the indefinite suspension of the show. No one quite knows the details of why it ended. What is clear is that tremendous pressure was piling on Youssef’s team, as it was on MBC.

When Youssef was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood, radical Salafis and Morsi’s rule in 2012-2013, he was considered a patriot and a hero for “speaking truth to power”. But when he and his team began to grow critical of the ultra-nationalistic fervour that swept Egypt in the aftermath of Mr Morsi’s removal, they were cast in a different light. And that is where, ultimately, the pressure to shut down his programme originated.

Youssef’s show never claimed to be a show without bias. Indeed, he made it very clear, on many occasions, that he was an extremely partial observer. Unlike many others in the Egyptian media, for example, Youssef was a strong advocate of the 2011 Egyptian revolution – and never apologised for it. During the first period of military rule in 2011, Youssef gradually became critical of the leadership – while others became enablers of it.

While there were those during Mr Morsi’s era who feigned support for the government, Youssef was critical of the Brotherhood throughout, although his criticism became more pronounced as time went on. After Mr Morsi was removed in July 2013, Youssef celebrated, but quickly became critical of the new mainstream.

That kind of track record would suggest that it would be difficult to paint Youssef as some sort of Brotherhood sympathiser, for example.

The irony of Egypt’s public sphere today, however, is that someone whom the Brotherhood cast as one of their most radical opponents is now bizarrely presented as a sympathiser of that same group. The evidence for such an accusation against Youssef is non-existent, but it doesn’t stop the speculation, simply because of his contrarian attitude to Egypt’s new sentiments.

It is clear that MBC and the team behind Youssef’s show were under a lot of pressure to cancel. Had this happened under Morsi, there would have been a huge outcry in the media.

However, when Youssef’s show ended a few days ago, the Egyptian media fell silent. It was not that they were censored. It was that, it seems, they did not care.

The suspension was not simply the end of a programme. It was more than that. Youssef pushed the envelope – not enough for many – but he had done something that no one else had accomplished in Egypt before. His show had carved out a space for political satire. The ability to question authority and state power, without fear. With his departure, that ability might not disappear – but will leave many wondering “If Bassem is gone, then what hope is there for me?”

Youssef left many who still recall that 2011 revolution with a frank and painful reminder.

Towards the end of his press conference he addressed the pro-revolutionary camp in Egypt, and reminded them that there is no single “voice” of the revolution.

Rather, everyone has to play a role – and one of the great failings of the revolutionary camp has been its inability to move beyond focusing on a single person or figure. And it is that attitude, he argued, that has led Egypt to where it finds itself now.

In the short-term, it’s difficult to imagine political satire having a future in Egypt. But the majority of the Egyptian population is young and it was to them Youssef’s programme spoke the most. Eventually, they will find a way to force open that door again.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer