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Egypt satirist Bassem Youssef's return creates political fuss

Bassem Youssef takes on Islamists, fans of army chief El-Sisi in season three premier of El-Bernameg, prompting lengthy online debates

Sherif Tarek , Saturday 26 Oct 2013
Bassem Youssef
Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef during his episode on 25 October, 2013 (Photo courtesy of Youssef's official Facebook page)
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Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef returned to television on Friday with a bang, drawing both praise and criticism from all sides of the political spectrum after an almost three-month hiatus.

Youssef, sparing no one in the season three premier of El-Bernameg (The Program), poked fun at ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the zealous supporters of army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

A legal complaint regarding the show's content was lodged to Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat not even a day after El-Bernameg's return, with many more expected to be made in the near future.

Although Friday's El-Bernameg was not as singularly focused on Islamist critique as it had been during Morsi's year in power, the Islamist camp still received a generous share of ridicule.

During a song and dance sketch to the tune of "Old MacDonald had a Farm," Youssef altered the iconic song's lyrics in order to "explain" to Egypt's children the events leading to Morsi's ouster last summer.

"After the revolution we got a president who thought we could be duped," Youssef and co sang in Arabic against the beat of drums."His Renaissance programme was a terrible idea ... so the people decided to revolt."

Later, Youssef played a video of Morsi during his year in power saying it was acceptable to "sacrifice a faction of society in order for the nation to live." Youssef sarcastically noted how Morsi's fate has been reversed today, remarking that the 'faction' for sacrifice has become the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.

Another video dating back to Morsi's rule showed pro-Muslim Brotherhood Islamic preacher Safwat Hegazy announcing that he would shut down all opposition channels within his power. In a biting critique, Youssef pointed out that it was Islamist channels that were ultimately taken off the air following Morsi's ouster.

Youssef takes on fans of El-Sisi

Although El-Bernameg devotees eagerly awaited to hear how Youssef would address the Muslim Brotherhood's rocky summer, anticipation was even higher over whether or not Youssef would poke fun at popular army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.

Those weary of the Egyptian media's unabashed adoration of El-Sisi in the wake of Morsi's ouster were not disappointed.

In a segment on the interim president, Youssef drew laughs by displaying a picture of El-Sisi before quickly switching to the correct image of Interim President Adly Mansour, insinuating that El-Sisi was the actual ruler of the country. Youssef poked fun at El-Sisi's supporters for "turning him into a pharaoh through blind support."

"El-Sisi has turned into ... chocolate!" exclaimed Youssef, referring to the recent emergence of chocolate bars bearing the army chief's face in Egyptian sweet shops. "We're also selling Sisi-fours," said an actor playing a pastry shop owner, making a pun on the tea cake "petit fours."

El-Sisi, as head of the army, has grown immensely popular since the military's ouster of Morsi on 3 July following days of mass protests against Islamist rule.

Taking on a more serious tone at the end of the episode, Youssef – who was called in by Morsi-appointed general prosecutor Talaat Abdullah during Morsi's tenure on charges of insulting the president – stated "I am not with the [Islamists], who attacked us and declared us apostates ... and publicly called for our imprisonment."

"At the same time, I am not with hypocrisy, deification of individuals and creation of pharaohs," he went on. "We are afraid that fascism in the name of religion will be replaced with fascism in the name of nationalism," Youssef added, expressing concern over the possible suppression of free media during the transitional period.

Youssef highlighted the Egyptian media's increasing homogeneity by calling out TV presenters who have turned against the 2011 revolution upon Morsi's ouster, such as Tawfik Okasha and Rola Kharsa. Videos of the duo showed the stark contradiction between their former and present attitudes, a contradiction that Youssef accentuated.

Social media tug-of-war

El-Bernameg was followed by hours of verbal jousting on social media over the show's content, with many supporters of both Morsi and El-Sisi expressing displeasure.

"Bassem Youssef is the joker of every era; he pokes fun at El-Sisi and then just does what he has always been doing," said a pro-Muslim Brotherhood Facebook user.

Another commented: "Some people are too naïve to think that an authoritarian regime that kills thousands in cold blood … will allow Bassem Youssef to resume his show in a way that would hurt their position."

Ahmed Sarhan, a spokesperson for Ahmed Shafiq's presidential campaign last year, argued that "The army chief cannot be criticised or mocked as long as he is wearing military attire, even in the US."

One angry pro-Sisi Twitter commentator was renowned Egyptian actress Ghada Abdel-Razek, who Youssef also poked fun at during his episode. "Apparently you're jealous of El-Sisi because he has stolen the limelight from you," she said.  

Amid the online fuss after the episode, Youssef tweeted: "Legend has it Egyptians have a great sense of humour and accept sarcasm. This is true but one must add the sentence 'only that suits their temperament.'"

On the other hand, Youssef's show was highly lauded by many viewers. "You are used to this nonsense. Just ignore [it] and keep it up, you have your fans who have always respected you," one Twitter user said to Youssef.

In an op-ed published in the private daily El-Shorouk a few days ahead of the episode, Youssef said he expected El-Sisi's cohorts to be against his show as much as loyalists of ousted president Mohamed Morsi were during Morsi's tenure.

He also said that some Morsi loyalists had dared him to criticise El-Sisi and Interim President Adly Mansour in the same way he had Morsi. Moreover, in the same article, Youssef acknowledged that he expected to be once again summoned by the prosecutor general following Friday's show due to legal complaints.

Former prosecutor general Talaat Abdullah ordered Youssef's arrest in March after complaints were made against him for allegedly insulting Morsi, denigrating Islam and spreading false news with the aim of disrupting public order. He was immediately released on bail after questioning.

Youssef rose to fame with a satirical online show after the uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011.

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