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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Bassem Youssef: Let Trump do his worst

With the United States Republican presidential candidate drumming up substantial support, political satirist Bassem Youssef believes a Trump victory may not be the worst thing as it could give America a wake-up call.
After witnessing violence during the Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef – inspired and influenced by Daily Show host Jon Stewart – started his own political satire show. Khaled Desouki / AFP
After witnessing violence during the Arab Spring, Bassem Youssef – inspired and influenced by Daily Show host Jon Stewart – started his own political satire show. Khaled Desouki / AFP

With the United States Republican presidential candidate drumming up substantial support, political satirist Bassem Youssef believes a Trump victory may not be the worst thing as it could give America a wake-up call.

While much of the world looks on in horror at the rise of Donald Trump as Republican presidential nomination front-runner, leading Egyptian satirist and political commentator Bassem Youssef thinks he could be the shock America needs.

“Sometimes people with empty, angry, racist rhetoric should be given the chance to get into power so they can screw up so bad that people will wake up and know that it doesn’t work,” says the former host of controversial satirical show Al Bernameg.

“Maybe the people need to see it fail so they believe this is not the answer.

“At least you know the US is not North Korea. There are bodies and legislation that will not bow to him, and you have hope that it may not be as disastrous as it could be.”

Youssef has been filming a new online show, The Democracy Handbook.

Set to make its debut on US television within weeks on F Comedy, Fusion TV’s new digital platform, the series follows Youssef as he analyses American politics from his Arab perspective.

Youssef has been in the US since he took up a temporary post at Harvard University’s Political Institute in January last year.

While he lives in California with his Egyptian-Palestinian wife, Hala, and their daughter, the former heart surgeon is back in Dubai this week to speak to a sell-out audience at the Step media and technology conference at Dubai International Marine Club.

“It will be a talk about the future of media and particularly social media, with Ahmed Shihab Eldin from Vice,” says Youssef.

He has spent much of his time lecturing students or conference audiences since he chose to take Al Bernameg off air in June 2014 following controversy, arrest warrants and threats from Egyptian political and religious establishments.

With the airing of his new show imminent, Youssef is clearly relishing a return to business as usual.

“It’s a satirical outlook for American democracy through the eyes of a Middle Easterner,” he explains.

“It’s kind of crazy when you can’t satirise the conditions in your own region but you get given the opportunity to go and satirise America.

“I’m the first Arab to do it and that’s a great honour.

“It’s hard, because I come from a different culture, so why would people listen to me?

“There’s a lot of competition out there because everyone is doing it, but what’s interesting is to find that Middle Eastern perspective.

“So for example I can say to people, ‘Trump – seriously? Are you scared of him? We call this life, every day, get over it!’

“It’s such an incredible opportunity to do what I want to do instead of what I have to do.”

The show will be produced by former The Daily Show with Jon Stewart producer Kathy Egan.

Youssef has long-standing links with The Daily Show, crediting it as an inspiration for his career. He appeared on the show several times and Stewart appeared on Youssef’s show in Egypt in 2013.

Another former producer, Sarah Taskler, has also made a documentary about Youssef and the risks he and his Al Bernameg team took.

Tickling Giants will premiere at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs April 13 to 24.

Commonly referred to as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, Youssef is flattered by the comparison.

Despite his modesty, it is worth noting that, at its peak, Al Bernameg pulled in about 30 million viewers across the Middle East – about 10 times Stewart’s typical audience when he hosted the US show.

With Stewart having stepped down from the Daily Show, there is perhaps a vacancy to be filled for the position of America’s leading political satirist. Stewart’s The Daily Show replacement, South African comedian Trevor Noah, has had mixed reviews.

“I think Jon Stewart left a huge void for everyone,” Youssef says.

“And I think it is daunting for anyone to follow him.”

Youssef also does not rule out making a guest appearance on the show under its new host.

“The same team is there and Trevor is a really nice guy,” he says.

“I’m always welcome there when something comes up.

“I think they’re not as focused on the Middle East right now, there’s so much going on, but I’m there if they need me.

“I’m more focused on building my own brand out there right now and the rest will hopefully follow.”

Either way, Youssef’s profile – relatively low key in the past two years – is about to be raised significantly.

The online episodes of The Democracy Handbook are to be paired with a television special, according to reports, and Youssef is writing a book, which should be published following the US elections in November.

It’s been a roller-coaster five years or so for Youssef who was still practising as a heart surgeon until 2011 – before the events of Tahrir Square inspired him to take a new direction in life.

Few could have predicted the success he would achieve in such a short time, moving from hospital ward to Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in barely three years, but Youssef remains philosophical about his achievements.

“It’s an interesting place to be,” he says. “It’s been an interesting few years.

“I was a heart surgeon then, at the age of 38, I started something totally different and became a political satirist, first on YouTube, then TV, then theatre, then all of that was suddenly taken away and I had to start again in an alien country.

“This is something someone in their early 20s should do, not someone who is 42 with a kid and a wife, but here I am and I’m not going anywhere just yet.”

The Democracy Handbook will be available globally on F-Comedy’s YouTube channel in the coming weeks. Follow F-Comedy on Facebook or @Fcomedy on Twitter for up-to-date information.

A rough guide to Bassem Youssef:

1974 – Bassem Youssef was born in Cairo. His early life was largely unremarkable, and he attended Cairo University’s medical school, majoring in cardiothoracic surgery in 1998. For the next decade, he worked as a heart surgeon in Egypt, the US and Germany.

January 2011 – Youssef used his medical skills to care for the injured in Tahrir Square as the Egyptian Arab Spring was in full flow. It was an experience that would change his life.

May 2011 – Inspired and influenced by the host of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Youssef posted the first episode of satire show B+ to YouTube.

July 2011 – After nine episodes of the online show, the Egyptian channel ONTV offered Youssef a slot for a weekly political satire show, dubbed Al-Bernameg (The Show). It became the platform for many writers, artists, and politicians to speak freely about the social and political scene.

June 2012 – Youssef made his debut on Stewart’s Daily Show, giving the host an extended interview. He would become the show’s Middle East correspondent.

November 2012 – Al Bernameg returned for a second season on a new network, CBC, and in a new home at Cairo’s Radio Theatre, making it the first live audience television show in Egypt.

January 2013 – The daily Al-masry Al-youm reported that an Egyptian prosecutor was investigating Youssef on charges of maligning president Mohammed Morsi, whose office claimed that Youssef’s show was ‘circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security and affect the administration’.

March 2013 – An arrest warrant was issued for Youssef for allegedly insulting Islam and Morsi. Youssef confirmed the arrest warrant on Twitter and said he would hand himself in to the prosecutor’s office, jokingly adding, “unless they kindly send a police van today and save me the transportation hassle”. He was questioned by authorities and released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds.

October 2013 – Al Bernameg returned for a third season. However, after Youssef again criticised the administration, during the season premiere, CBC first distanced itself from his views before cancelling the show.

December 2013 – Youssef is named in the annual Time 100 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

February 2014 – Al Bernameg was resurrected on MBC Al Masr. However, the network suspended the show during the Egyptian election campaign in May.

June 2014 – Youssef announced that he was ending Al Bernameg, explaining he felt that the political climate in Egypt was too dangerous to continue.

* Chris Newbould

newsdesk@thenational.ae