When you attend a seminar entitled 'Debating Political Satire: Fans and Foes' featuring controversial political satirist Bassem Youssef opposite ultra-conservative Islamist Nageh Ibrahim, you expect a certain degree of heat.
The debate pitched Youssef, the host of satirical news show 'El-Bernameg' which has acquired a cult following among the young and liberal, opposite co-founder of hardline Islamist group Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, Nageh Ibrahim.
Despite the differences between the participants, the discussion, which was hosted by the American University in Cairo’s Kamal Adham Center for Television and Digital Journalism, was much more civil than the massive crowd of AUC students and faculty anticipated.
During the discussion, which kick-started the Adham Center’s series of 'Meet the Media' discussions for the spring semester, the two guests were extremely respectful of each other’s views.
To the students’ dismay, apart from inducing a few chuckles, Youssef was mostly serious and consistently courteous, explaining at one point that the debate “is not a crossfire,” and that the guests and moderator, Adham Center director and journalist Hafez El-Mirazi, were there merely to express their diverse opinions on political satire.
Filled to the brim with students, staff and professors, the Bassily Auditorium at the AUC’s New Cairo campus hosted a riveting but calm discussion that was not reflective of the intolerance and violence currently pervading Egypt’s political scene.
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya’s Nageh Ibrahim emerged to represent the utopian Islamist.
His bearded face constantly bore a smile, and he did not at any point, dub Bassem Youssef a clown, or anything worse.
Ibrahim made some broadminded remarks to the effect that as long as liberals and secularists differentiate between criticising Islamic figures and movements and criticising Islam, political satire is not prohibited in Islam, and it should be accepted by said Islamists.
Still, Ibrahim did suggest a few modifications to Youssef’s model of political satire. Relying on Quranic scripture and tales of the prophets, Ibrahim advocated constructive criticism rather than attacks on people’s character or appearance, and suggests that critique need not be “so bitter; it should be sweetened with a pinch of sugar.”
The Islamist also recommended that politicians and satirists be fair and just even when it came to their enemies, and warned that satire should not be exclusively directed at one faction of society, lest it lose its credibility.
Youssef, on the other hand, disagreed respectfully and explained that attacking a certain political force, particularly the ruling political party, was political satire’s raison d’être, citing the United States satire favourites Saturday Night Live, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert as evidence.
“The role of satire is to put one party under the spotlight,” argued Youssef.
Both guests, however, shared criticism of the political opposition at play in today’s political arena; Ibrahim suggested that political forces are not seeking to serve citizens, but rather hanker after more power.
Youssef managed to draw roars of laughter from the youthful audience at his description of the opposition; a simple “they suck.”
Ibrahim remarked on the lack of maturity of local political forces, and their inability to unite the diverse public, stating; “we are in the crib of freedom…we are all in political kindergarten.”
“We need to come together in serving Egypt and its citizens,” he argued.
Ibrahim's Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya has recently suggested a political roadmap for the country paved with national dialogue and elections.
Youssef, on the other hand did not pretend to have a concrete vision for the country’s future.
When asked about his five-year vision for Egypt, the political satirist smiled. "Nobody has a crystal ball; I really don’t know where we’re going, but let's have fun while we go there.”
Uncharacteristically docile during the debate, Youssef persistently agreed with his opponent, saying at one point, “I wish that the entire Islamist current was like Dr. Nageh Ibrahim.”
However, the students did not let the afternoon pass without tension.
“What is your opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and President Mohamed Morsi?” an audience member shot at Ibrahim, to applause and anticipation from the rest of the crowd.
Although Nageh Ibrahim did not attack Morsi’s character when asked, calling him a “good man,” he did say, “the Muslim Brotherhood is the source of his strengths and weaknesses.”
The Q&A session also witnessed Youssef defending his programme against criticism by its viewers.
One student sternly asked him, “if you are aware of the massive influence you have over your viewers, why do you resort to profanity and innuendo?” echoing the concerns of many viewers who have been unsettled by the satirist’s occasionally explicit witticisms.
Youssef made no apologies for his style, however, and responded with “we’re not children,” adding that viewers choose to tune into his show, and that he could not please the entire 90-million population.
The famed satirist also addressed a criticism by some fans - that his YouTube show was better than his shows on ONtv and CBC channels.
Youssef attributed the difference in the programmes to an evolution from broader comedy, reflecting happier times, to his current style, created during the current difficult period and hence demanding a more biting form of satire.
For Youssef, his programme has an essential function; it is there to systematically place the government under close scrutiny, and to apply pressure on the regime.