Egypt's top television satirist, Bassem Youssef, returned to screens Friday, fiercely jabbing at the cancellation of his show — El-Bernameg ('The Programme') — three months ago as well as the media frenzy surrounding popular military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who is widely expected to be Egypt's next head of state.
Youssef's comeback came after several months of absence, interrupted by only one episode of his show last fall — the first since the July ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. His mockery of the pro-military nationalism sweeping the country, and the hero worship of El-Sisi, who led Morsi's overthrow, prompted his show to be suspended minutes before its next episode was scheduled to be broadcast.
Youssef's former private broadcaster, CBC, said at the time that the satirist had violated its editorial policy and his contractual obligations and caused discontent among Egyptians by insulting "symbols of the state."
In Friday's pre-recorded show, now broadcast on privately-owned MBC Misr channel, Youssef appeared undaunted, further stepping up his scathing ridicule. Satirically vowing to dispense with troublesome political satire and opt for safer content, the 39-year-old comedian poked fun at almost all television genres — from cooking to sports and fashion — for often wandering off the theme to lionise the defense minister.
He joked about a newscaster who referred to a restaurant menu offering an "El-Sisi Mix" sandwich, a football association official who said the mere presence of El-Sisi would certainly drive Egypt to an elusive World Cup, and street vendors who sell trousers "autographed by El-Sisi." Showing that everything inevitably leads to mentioning the general, he also played a video clip of a Spanish song with a refrain of "si- si" (which means "yes" in Spanish).
El-Sisi's popularity has skyrocketed since he led Morsi's July ouster following millions-strong protests against his turbulent year in power. Posters of El-Sisi have sprouted up across the country, with many of Egyptians hailing him as the nation's saviour from the grip of a much reviled Islamist rule, and calling for him to run for president.
He is widely expected to secure a landslide victory if he decides to contest elections due in spring. He has yet to officially announce his candidacy.
Joking about the abrupt suspension of his show in November, Youssef said Friday's episode was the "first and maybe the last" in the new series, raising questions about the fate of a hard-hitting programme amid a dwindling of voices critical of the authorities.
Earlier in the show, Youssef and his teammates burst into a spoof skit to the tune of a comic song-and-dance number of the 1960s, that he said was dedicated to those who are "upset at us or don’t want us to carry on … in case they feel like coming down on the show."
"It's been 16 years since working as a doctor before my dream finally came to light … to host a satirical show and blast worries," he sang in rhyme in Arabic. "Then it turns out to be an ill-fated job rife with troubles; at first you become a heretic and later a traitor or an agent," the one-time heart surgeon said of accusations levelled at him first by Islamists and later by military supporters.
Youssef, whose switch to satire was inspired by US comedian Jon Stewart, shot to prominence following the 2011 uprising that swept longtime autocrat Mubarak from power, releasing online amateur videos that became an overnight sensation. He gained global fame during Morsi's rule for his weekly jabs at the soon-to-be toppled leader and his Islamist allies.
But for some, Youssef crossed a line when he continued his criticism and turned satire against the authorities that replaced Morsi.
Egyptian media has whipped up a public frenzy that allows of almost no criticism of the country's army and little to no room for general dissent.
As the theme ran through Friday's show, one of Youssef's cohorts goes wrong and sings a lyric calling Morsi's ouster a "coup" – a taboo word among staunch army supporters who see the move as a response to the popular will – before Youssef and another entertainer hold fake guns on him.
"[But] we will say what we wish and won't be afraid of anyone," he deadpanned before hinting — while displaying a projected silhouette image of El-Sisi — that he would steer clear of mentioning the general if this upsets people.
"That's not fear, that's respect," he told his audience. "There is no need for political satire … because everything in the country is stable," he added sarcastically.
Egypt has plunged into political tumult since Morsi's removal seven months ago. Hundreds, mostly Islamists, have been killed in street violence and thousands others have been jailed. An Islamic insurgency has taken hold across the country, with deadly bombings and shootings targeting army and police personnel spilling over from the Sinai Peninsula into other parts of the country.
The satirist jovially said he attempted to talk about different things than El-Sisi, but the general was "everywhere," saying that his spoofs won't bring a country down or lower the prestige of a leader.
"[But] The question is why not to talk. If we leave what is evident to talk about anything else, then we are making fools of ourselves," Youssef later said.
The long hiatus of the show, largely viewed as a bellwether for free speech, between seasons raised anxiety about the tolerance of interim authorities for criticism in a country stumbling in its democratic transition since the 2011 popular revolt.
Egypt's prosecutors investigated Youssef over the last episode before his show was suspended, on charges of disrupting public order and contempt of Egypt and state symbols.
He also faced a probe under Morsi over allegations of insulting the president and Islam.