Interview: Egypt's top satirist prepares return

AP, Friday 10 Jan 2014

Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef says his team of writers and comedians now face a tough challenge, But they are not planning to hold back

Bassem Youssef
Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef poses for a photograph at his studio in downtown Cairo, January 8 2014 (Photo: AP)

Bassem Youssef, Egypt's most popular satirist often compared to US comedian Jon Stewart, said Wednesday his team is preparing to bring back their widely watched television show poking fun at politics in a country still beset by turmoil following the July ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Private broadcaster CBC suspended the show, called "The Programme" in Arabic, last autumn after the season's first episode, which was highly critical of the military and the nationalist fervour gripping the nation after the military-backed overthrow of Morsi following mass protests across the nation against his rule.

With an interim government in place and sensitivities high, Youssef says his team of writers and comedians face a tough challenge. But they are not planning to hold back.

"We never self-censor," Youssef told The Associated Press in an interview from his Cairo studio. "It's not what we say about the government or don't say, it is how to make people laugh and have a good time. In times like these this is a huge challenge."

"If people laughed, if people think we are respecting their mentality that would be great. Given the circumstances, the panic, the violence, the hatred, the split (in the country), everybody wants you to say exactly what they want. It's very difficult."

CBC said the satirist had violated its editorial policy and contractual obligations, and that he upset Egyptian sensibilities by attacking "symbols of the state." Government and presidential officials at the time said the decision was a private issue between Youssef and the station.

Now, the plan is to bring back the whole team, Youssef said, which has been in Cairo reviewing scripts and getting ready to go on the air within a week's notice -- although they have yet to decide which channels' offer to take up. He repeatedly declined to say what offers have come in from broadcasters eager to host a show once bracketed by long commercial breaks.

Youssef acknowledged initial episodes of the show's third season upset some of his fans, but said their comic points had to be made.

"I wanted to tell the people, you know, this is not a tool to bring down regimes. We never thought of ourselves like this," he said. "We were just, you know, cracking jokes about the status quo."

"And it's a way to deal with our differences ... and I think it's a very healthy cathartic way of freedom of expression."

"As a matter of fact, having a show like this reflects well on the government -- that it allows something like this."

Youssef's programme often stirred controversies, making him the target of many legal complaints. Authorities investigated him over the last episode on charges of disrupting public order and insulting Egypt and military leaders.

His popularity peaked during Morsi's rule, when he targeted him and his Islamist allies with weekly mockery for mixing religion and politics. Youssef also was briefly detained and released on bail under Morsi on accusations of insulting the president and Islam.

After Morsi's ouster, many rights groups expressed concern about growing restrictions on freedom of expression as rampant nationalism made it difficult to criticise the government.

Authorities have shut down several Islamist channels on accusation of inciting violence and hatred.

Since then, divisions have grown deeper. Hundreds have been killed in crackdowns on protesters demanding Morsi's reinstatement. Attacks by Islamic extremists against security forces and Christians have increased. The media-promoted nationalist fervour gripping the country is elevated the army to an untouchable status, Youssef believes, leaving little tolerance among the public or officials for criticism, particularly of military chief General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, lionised as a hero.

"First of all you have a whole block of media that has been removed from the scene, you know, the Islamic channels. So you already have a one-sided media," Youssef said. "I think one of the reasons people got angry is that we spoke differently. We weren't against the regime. But we weren't totally 100 percent going with the flow.

He added: "And I have a problem with the present media. There's a lot of propagating of fear and panic."

While many political observers forecast that el-Sissi would win easily if he ran for office, Youssef says he has always hoped that the general will stick to a role he considers needed in the military.

"Of course if he runs for the presidency, he would win. I mean he, the guy, he's very popular. There's no question about it," Youssef said. "But you know I just wish that he would step down and give a chance to people with equal chances."

As for his old nemesis, Morsi, currently in a high security prison and facing charges that carry the death penalty, Youssef said he hopes the trial against him is conducted fairly and transparently.

Asked if he thought Morsi would receive a fair trial, Youssef said he had "no idea."

"How can you predict something like this? I wish."

This story was edited by Ahram Online.

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