Revolutionary satire: Bassem Youssef speaks to Ahram Online

Farah Montasser and Deena Adel, Monday 29 Aug 2011

Bassem Youssef speaks to Ahram Online about his television show El Barnameg, one of this Ramadan's most popular programmes

Bassem Youssef

Bassem Youssef introduced a special brand of political satire to post-revolutionary Egypt.  In his Internet debut in March, on the video-sharing website YouTube, Youssef humorously exposed Egyptian State Television’s bizarre coverage of the revolution.

The B plus show was a hilarious breath of fresh air, and an overnight success. The low-budget internet production instantly received hundreds of thousands of hits and became the most subscribed Egyptian YouTube channel.

Youssef quickly caught the attention of television executives, and was suddenly flooded with offers, before finally closing a television deal with ONTV. Now that the show was backed by a television network and professional assistance, the audience had great expectations of their favourite YouTube star.  

Youssef always refers to himself as a television viewer like rest of us. “I’m a viewer. I watch television, and I say whatever comes to mind,” he told Ahram Online.


Ahram Online: Do you write your own script?

Bassen Youssef: Yes I do. I set the agenda and delegate my great team of young interns and amateurs, in addition to our veterans, to go in depth into each topic; and I take it from there. After their research, we discuss the angle. I write it at the end because I always want to say what I feel, not because I am the best writer out there but because no one can really express how I feel. Credit should be given to my team; about 90% of the end product comes from my team but what I say on TV comes from me.

The challenge was to find writers to work in this type of satire, as it is new to the Egyptian media. Most of them are only familiar with the regular serious talk shows and comedy shows. But El-Barnameg, a black comedy analytical show, is totally new to Egypt.

AO: Are there any limits for writing each episode?

BY: Well I do have ethical limits. I present a family-friendly show that my mum watches. If my mum can’t watch it, then I can’t write it. Religion and sex, for example, are off-limits to me. We have to be sensitive to the nature of Egyptian society too.

AO: What about censorship?

BY: There is no censorship in my show and this was a precondition when signing the contract with ONTV. I am here to discuss topics of my choice and directly question or criticise people using their names, not make discreet hints: I say it as it is. I don’t have connections with any of them, so I don’t really care.

AO: Another unprecedented move was the much talked-about episode where the target of the show’s critical jokes was business mogul and owner of ONTV, Naguib Sawiris. Were you making a statement with that episode?

BY: Yes. After giving Sawiris the same treatment as other people, I thought nobody would accuse me of hypocrisy. But they probably will… We tend to have very short memories. As a matter of fact, they will say Naguib paid me to make fun of him to make him look better!

Comedy in El-Barnameg is subtle, as opposed to Egyptian mainstream in-your-face comedy.  Youssef’s signature sarcasm and wisecracks were still there, but the audience had mixed reactions.

AO: The audience was taken aback with El-Barnameg and accuse you of not being as funny as you were on the internet during the revolution with your B Plus show on YouTube…

BY: A lot of people come up to me and give me the remark: “You were much funnier on the internet,” when I wasn’t. As an example, the head of a major news agency here in Egypt gave me this remark too, which deeply saddens me because this is not the purpose of El-Barnameg.

We are not presenting a programme that makes fun of people. We want to present current topics that are worth analysis and discussion, adding a few spices to make it more appealing to the audience.  Every now and then, I mock a figure or two but this is not the core of the programme. It cannot become a serious talk show like the ones filling each and every channel. I also cannot be a comedian or a TV clown, appearing on screens every night to tickle people.

AO: Do you think finding material has become more difficult since 11 February? Has it decreased?

BY: Yes, of course. The material at the time was extremely fruitful, and now it is not. This is the challenge; we have to work with what we have every day.  You cannot start a show and still be locked into the events of a revolution that happened six months ago. You can mention it, but it can’t be your main theme.

AO: But this is what the audiences in Egypt and the Middle East are waiting for. They are not used to this type of satire…

BY: Quite true. That’s why we couldn’t begin with episodes in which we criticise and mock figures like Amr Mostafa and Tawfik Okhasha. We left them until the second half of the month; if we had started with them, that would have been where we set the bar. The simplest thing was to start with easy targets. We started off with the situation in Syria, Naguib Sawiris, and Hussein Salem.

AO: You are a cardiologist and you have consistently said that you have no plans to forego your medical career. How do you cope with being a physician and TV presenter at the same time?

BY: The dense schedule of TV in Ramadan drove me way from my main profession. But when the show happens twice a week I will be able to find time in between. Actually, I don’t see myself continuing this. All these media lights will fade, quicker than you think, and I see myself going back to being a fulltime doctor. I hope that the masses get to understand this genre and the show continues, as I enjoy doing it, yet I remain constantly scared of failure.

AO: So will you be the Middle Eastern version of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?

BY: This is our aim. Jon Stewart became what he is today, after 12 years. Today he presents himself as a newsman after being a comedian for many years. He has an army of writers, interns and comedians. He is not a clown, dresses professionally and analyses US affairs.

We are still right at the beginning of this genre of comedy in Egypt. Most people within our society are a bit confused about the show; not knowing whether to accept it or not. People still cannot categorise the programme. We have a message along with this satire; we use comedy to get to them.

AO: What are your plans regarding El-Barnameg in the future?

BY: We want to expand our team to become a regular show. After Ramadan, we will be featured on ONTV twice a week, aiming for a good first season, and hopefully we will take it from there.

AO: Moving from the TV show to reality… How do you view the situation in Egypt today?

BY: People are becoming less tolerant of the revolution. The mentality of Egyptians is focussed on where we are now and what we have today. No one cares about the future and no one plans ahead. The average Egyptian doesn’t believe in long-term plans. They want all this to end now no matter what the conditions. They want a guarantee of stability, security, and daily income. Had this revolution continued for another month, it would have failed.

AO: That is a strong statement, why do you believe so?

BY: Well, Mubarak’s biggest mistake was that he ordered policemen and military officers to be on the streets. If he had left the demonstrations and then come out to the public announcing a new cabinet, the sacking and investigation of former minister of the interior Habeeb El-Adly, and the end of his presidency, he would have become a national hero and everyone would have returned to their homes.

AO: What do you think will happen to Egypt?

BY: If it doesn’t take on martial laws and military rule, I am quite optimistic.

AO: How do you see Egypt after the next parliamentary elections?

BY: Well, I don’t believe that the upcoming elections will matter at all. Even if the Islamists receive a majority, it would be stupid of them to transform the country into an Islamic state. Not that there is anything wrong with Shari’a Law, on the contrary, but it is the wrong application of it that would be a problem. It could affect several industries in Egypt, like tourism for instance. If they shut down nightclubs and bars in Al-Haram Street, for example, which is a street I am completely against, a lot of people would be unemployed and would take to the streets.

Mubarak fell with over 100,000 people demonstrating in the streets, against his police, army forces and years of keeping people silent. Whoever is to seek power in the future, won’t have this much power and will fall immediately.

AO: Do you belong to any political party?

BY: Not at all, and I prefer not to, because it affects credibility. It is obvious that my affiliations are liberal but I don’t belong to any political party and I don’t partake in any political activities.

AO: What is your position with regards to the current Israeli- Egyptian crisis?

BY: Well this will be presented in my final episode in Ramadan but I can share a bit with you now. Because we have remained passive for decades, we are a bit shaky today. We can express our thoughts and anger without being afraid. The Turks have much stronger ties with Israel than we do, yet they are used to expressing themselves publicly and consequently take stronger actions.

Now that we have publicly expressed our anger, we might have forced our diplomats to take stronger actions. Removing the flag is a good symbolic move yet it is not enough. It doesn’t solve anything. Legally, it is a direct attack on Israel, yet it is also an answer to Israel’s attack on Egypt in the first place.

Bassem Youssef was among the medical team who tended to the wounded in Tahrir Square on 2 February after the infamous Battle of the Camel. The 37-year-old is also licensed to practise his medical profession in the United States. He was awaiting his US work permit when he started writing the show, and embarked on this unexpected new career…

Short link: