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Egyptian Political Satirist Becomes Cultural Hero

Bassem Youssef: 'We are not living now in a Marxist age, or even a fascist age. This is an age of witch-burning.'

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The time: March 2011, two months after the Egyptian revolution. The event: a widely attended Muslim Brotherhood-sponsored conference entitled “Don’t Just Hear About Us, Hear From Us.” One of the speakers was Safwat Hegazi, who discussed the desirable traits that Egypt’s next president should have. “Let us not elect a president who is too smart,” he said.

In other words – let us not elect a president who comes from the elites, somebody who studied abroad and knows a number of languages. These are not desirable qualities, for then this person will condescend to the people. “We want a president whom we can work with and talk to,” he added.

So goes the opening of a satirical piece by Bassem Youssef in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Shuruq. Youssef, editor and presenter of “El Bernameg” (“The Program”), became a cultural icon after making the Muslim Brotherhood and the army the targets of his sharp-tongued barbs, leading to his forced resignation last November from the Egyptian network that broadcast his show, whose owner had ties to the military junta. Within days, “El Bernameg” had moved to Saudi Arabia’s MBC network, and now Youssef is plying his trade in writing. His keen wit is familiar to every informed Egyptian. He sticks his sharp and penetrating pins in the thick skin of the secular intellectual elite as well.

National paranoia

Youssef writes: “I’ve come to see that the blind hatred for any intelligent person who thinks differently is a basic part of many people’s thinking. Not only those who are part of the Islamist movements, but also members of the educated classes, who send their children to study abroad. (Thus, for example, Mohammed) ElBaradei is a foreign agent in their eyes because he lived and studied abroad. (ElBaradei was secretary general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a candidate in the last Egyptian presidential election – Z. B.) If an Egyptian ever wins a Nobel Prize, it must be as a form of payment by international forces for his efforts to destroy his country, and when an Egyptian is feted at international events, it’s a gesture of appreciation for his betrayal.

“It’s interesting to see that the personal slights that were meant to hurt a certain person have remained unchanged from the Mubarak period to the Muslim Brotherhood government to the days of the military junta,” Youssef continued. “The ideologies have changed, but the ‘good heart’ remains. Didn’t we mock the Islamists who charged that Zewail only won the Nobel Prize as a reward for his cooperation with Israel? (The reference is to Ahmed Hassan Zewail, who won the 1999 Nobel Prize for Chemistry, the first Egyptian to win a Nobel in the sciences – Z. B.) The respect that a person receives abroad must be payment for his betrayal. Unless you’re General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, who appears on the cover of TIME Magazine. … ElBaradei is a traitor because he worked in Vienna (as head of the IAEA), and Wael Ghonim (the high-tech worker who started the Facebook campaign that drew hundreds of thousands to the protests that preceded the revolution) is a traitor because he found success in America. But Al-Sissi, who studied at West Point in America, is not a traitor.”

He went on: “‘Al-Usbu’ weekly wrote about me: ‘Bassem Youssef graduated university in 1999 and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate from a British Faculty of Surgery in just seven years. How could he have done so without support from foreign forces?’ Success, it appears, is blameworthy. Are failure, frustration and a lack of accomplishments the only things that are accepted with understanding in this country? We are not living now in a Marxist age, or even a fascist age. This is an age of witch-burning. If you suspect someone of being a witch, toss her in the river. If she survives, she is clearly a witch and therefore must be burned. If she drowns, well oops, we goofed, and may Allah forgive us.

“The atmosphere of fear and hatred spread by the Mubarak government became more extreme under the Brotherhood government, and now it completely envelops us,” writes Youssef. “With the aid of the media, the citizens of this country have become beings who despise logic, education and enlightenment, because they always disguise nefarious intentions. You all would probably prefer a nation that mumbles prayers when it sees a solar eclipse and runs and hides when it sees lightning. You want a country that is removed from history and development, a nation that will be an enemy of science and enlightenment.”

Presidential hopeful: ‘America pulls Youssef’s strings’

There could be no better proof of Youssef’s arguments than the response of attorney Mortada Mansour, who announced that he’d contacted the Saudi ambassador to Egypt, requesting that the kingdom cease broadcasting Youssef’s program on MBC. “Youssef is a puppet and America is pulling the strings. MBC’s decision to air his program could cause Egypt’s relations with Saudi Arabia to deteriorate. The Egyptian people will have no pity for Bassem Youssef if even a single ordinary Egyptian soldier is hurt.” Monsour does not belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. He is a former judge and a founder of the Free Egyptians Party, and also plans to run for president. His chances of getting elected are close to nil, but at least he’ll supply Youssef with some good material for his show.

A bodyguard secures popular Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef as he enters Egypt's state prosecutor's office, March 31, 2013. Credit: AP