x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Satirist Youssef is without honours in his own country

Bassem Youssef has found a place among the 100 most influential people identified by Time magazine, but in Egypt the television celebrity has received a different kind of treatment.

On Thursday Bassem Youssef, the Arab world's most famous political satirist, was recognised by Time magazine as one of the world's 100 most influential people.

But this Egyptian television celebrity and patriot received a different kind of award in his homeland last week: supporters of President Mohammed Morsi lodged yet more cases against him with the public prosecutor.

If Youssef chose to leave Egypt because of this constant harassment, few would be surprised. But he chooses to stay - and with every new broadcast, his team shows the best of what Egyptian determination, and Egyptian humour, has to offer. And with every new case that the public prosecutor decides to entertain, the Egyptian authorities show they are not interested in fixing Hosni Mubarak's system, but simply wish to enjoy the partisan advantages that unjust system provides.

South Africa's first elected post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela, was put on the Time 100 list, with barely any dissenters. But Egypt's first elected post-uprising president, Mr Morsi, received a different type of distinction, in "voting" on the magazine's website: the highest number of votes against his inclusion on the list.

Last week Mr Morsi's information minister, Salah Abdel Maqsoud, made headlines for apparent sexual innuendo in a comment to a female reporter at a news conference. This minister, who has been accused of similar things before, was neither suspended nor forced to resign.

He could have been made an example of by President Morsi's government, to show how intolerable any kind of sexual harassment is in post-uprising Egypt. Instead he is evidence of just how little has changed.

That this is the same minister who criticised Bassem Youssef's television show just makes the situation even more ridiculous - for this administration, it is insufferable that Youssef, a private citizen, poke fun at the president, but it is completely acceptable that a minister make a leering suggestion to a woman.

The authorities are not, however, squeamish about suspending others in the employ of the state, when it suits them. Consider the case of "the revolution's Imam". On April 9 the Ministry of Religious Endowments suspended Dr Mazhar Shaheen, preacher at the Omar Makram mosque on the edge of Tahrir Square in Cairo. The ministry removed him from his post while it investigates a complaint that he has been acting like a "TV station or opposition paper" and causing societal friction by criticising the president and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In fact, Dr Shaheen is a fierce Egyptian patriot who advocates inter-communal harmony between Muslims and Christians, and is committed to an Egypt of all its people. Last year, ironically, he supported President Morsi against presidential rival Ahmad Shafiq. Dr Shaheen has been critical of Egypt's rulers since the revolution began - first of the military's stewardship, then by Mr Morsi. And he will likely continue to be critical of those in power.

In fact Dr Shaheen is deeply anti-sectarian, with strong political views, and that is what led to his suspension. On the flip side, many avowedly sectarian and radical preachers enjoy near immunity, although they are arguably far more damaging to Egypt's social cohesion.

Dr Shaheen's pluralism is mirrored by the diversity of Youssef's television show and its production team, which includes both Muslims and Christians, religious and non-religious, women in headscarves and women without them. The owner of the company that produces the show is from a family deeply committed to the Muslim Brotherhood. (The owner himself has no such allegiance.)

Youssef has had members of the opposition lampooned on the show - and has invited them as guests. He has offered the same invitation to Mr Morsi, to show that satire does not equal enmity - an invitation Mr Morsi has not taken up.

Youssef joins a list of people who have, for better or for worse, changed the world. Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela - and now an Egyptian political satirist of whom virtually nobody had heard before January 2011. Dr Shaheen, too, is a product of the revolution.

If Mr Morsi had been a president for all the people - not simply in word, but in deed - then his administration might have acknowledged and welcomed the work and efforts of men like these two. Instead, the public prosecutor appointed by Mr Morsi opted to raise a case against the entertainer, and the ministry of endowments - led by a Salafi preacher appointed by Mr Morsi - decided to suspend the cleric.

There will be outcasts in Egypt's future. There will be people who will be cast out of the realm of acceptable discourse, and described as embarrassments to Egypt.

But it is truly doubtful that in the long run the likes of Bassem Youssef and Imam Shaheen will be the outcasts. Rather, revolutionary history will record their contributions to calling power to account after the uprising.

In the meantime, Jon Stewart, host of US television's Daily Show, wrote the laudatory entry about Youssef for Time's list. ("I am an American satirist," he concluded, "and Bassem Youssef is my hero.")

Mr Morsi, on the other hand, despite getting many votes supporting his inclusion on the list, got at least as many against it. If he had been included, the entry plainly would not have been one of praise.


Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution based in Cairo, and ISPU

On Twitter: @hahellyer