While some seek to achieve political change through protests and elections, Egyptian YouTube sensation Bassem Youssef is determined to transform Egypt’s political landscape with comedy. Dubbed “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” Youssef’s top-rated show “al-Bernameg” (“The Program”) has developed a mass following by pushing the boundaries of political discourse and boldly tackling taboo subjects that were off limits to the media under Mubarak’s rule, including sectarianism and the military’s political and economic privileges. Describing his style as “post-revolutionary political soap opera” in exclusive comments to EgyptSource, Youssef said that the show’s method is unique and unfamiliar in Egypt’s established media landscape. Despite Youssef’s popularity, some traditionalists are skeptical of his unfamiliar brand of comedy. “Political Satire is a new art in Egypt and we still have a long way to go to make it acceptable to people,” Youssef said.
Youssef’s rise to fame has its roots in the revolution. Before he was a media sensation, the 37-year-old Youssef was a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon who personally treated injured protesters in Tahrir Square. After witnessing firsthand the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters, Youssef reacted strongly to the way Egyptian state media covered the uprising. While the Mubarak regime was collapsing, it used every tool at its disposal to isolate protesters. Official TV stations as well as some private stations were podcasting propaganda continuously, using statements from celebrities and major media personalities loyal to the regime as well as one-time opposition voices who had been co-opted by the ruling party. These commentators passionately defended the embattled Mubarak, even after his defiant last speech in which he steadfastly refused to meet the demands of protesters. In the early days of the uprising, state media waged informational warfare against the protesters in an ugly smear campaign aimed at delegitimizing the objectives of the revolution. The airwaves were saturated with sensational, fabricated tales of debauchery and treachery by protesters: a young female girl confessed to having been trained by the CIA to instigate the revolution, while a popular actor claimed that protesters in Tahrir Square were engaging in group sex.
Appalled by this toxic media environment, Bassem Youssef decided to speak out. On March 3, he launched his own YouTube channel and began producing a low-budget video series called “The Bassem Youssef Show,” which drew inspiration from Jon Stewart’s popular program. Within four weeks, the videos had become an internet sensation, attracting 1.2 million viewers. In one of his earliest videos, Youssef parodied the actor and Mubarak loyalist Tala’t Zakaria, who has been accusing protesters of staging scandalous orgies in Tahrir Square, complete with “drums, horns, dancing, drugs…and full sexual relations.” During the show, Youssef pretended to call a friend, urging him to join the party in Tahrir Square, while simultaneously displaying video footage of armored vehicles steamrolling over protesters. Fans began calling him “the voice of the revolution.”
Although Mubarak’s rule ended with his resignation on February 11, Youssef cautioned viewers that “the regime is not down yet.” Youssef’s YouTube videos were a powerful reminder to protesters that the success of the revolution could not be taken for granted, and his satirical brand of investigative journalism has inspired Egyptians to help hold the interim government accountable through continued vigilance, scrutiny and constructive criticism.
From his humble beginnings on YouTube, Youssef has since been catapulted to stardom as one of Egypt’s most recognized media personalities with his own prime-time talk show. After Youssef managed to attract a mass following on a shoe-string budget, he was approached by ON TV, owned by the billionaire Naguib Sawiris, with an offer to broadcast his show on a prime-time network. Under the new name “al-Bernameg” (“The Program”), Youssef’s show went on air in July 2011 and has since become one of Egypt’s top-rated programs. But Youssef is quick to recall how his home-grown media empire started in a low-tech studio run out of Youssef’s own apartment. The viral YouTube videos that registered millions of hits were created by a production team of just two people: Youssef wrote the script, while his friend Tarek Elqazaz was in charge of production.
With elections approaching in less than two weeks, Youssef will undoubtedly have much to say about the polling process and results. With the campaign process well underway, Youssef noted the growing polarization of the political scene and divisions between different ideological groups – liberals, Islamists, and Coptic Christians – which are pursuing very different agendas and visions for the next political system. Meanwhile, the trend toward fragmentation has weakened pressure on the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and opened a window of opportunity for consolidating the military’s political power and economic privileges. The SCAF has a strong strategic interest in keeping the political field divided, and Youssef suspects that the council is deliberately enflaming divisions and rivalries between political forces to consolidate and prolong its control over the system. “The army succeeded in splitting the political powers … Now, getting all those forces together is doubtful, at least for the time being.” With most parties weak, under-funded and resistant to cooperation, it is unlikely that any single force will win a plurality in the next parliament.
Although he declined to make predictions on the outcome, Youssef said that the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is likely to make a strong showing. “I think there will be a definite comeback from NDP members; lots of them will return,” Youssef said. He also expressed concern about the potential for violence and misconduct during the voting process, which is expected to see record levels of turnout. “I think there will be a lot of chaos and violence that may give [the military] an excuse to enforce martial laws.”
Despite his concerns about the electoral process, Youssef said that the long-term prospects for a successful democratic transition look promising. “I am generally optimistic about the transition period, even though it will take a few years though to see the real change,” he said.
Magdy Samaan is a freelance journalist and a 2011 MENA Democracy Fellow at the World Affairs Institute. Mr. Samaan has previously worked as a correspondent for the Egyptian independent newspapers al-Shorouk and al-Masry al-Youm as well as Al Jazeera, reporting on politics, religious minorities, and US-Egypt relations.