It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night, and Bassem Youssef’s show is on TV screens at cafes throughout downtown Cairo.
It’s the Egyptian political satirist’s first show since he was summoned to the prosecutor general’s office to answer questions about the jokes he makes on TV. After the interrogation, he was released on about $2,200 bail.
On this night, the show opens with a joke about Youssef himself.
It may seem like fun and games, but Youssef, whose show is inspired by Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, has become the voice of the many frustrated Egyptians.
While opposition political figures have little traction among Egyptians, Youssef’s show reaches 30 million viewers a week. It is a cross section of society that watches him: from the religious to the secular; from the young to the old. He spends a lot of time making fun of the government, of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the Islamists in general. He thinks they distort his religion.
Michael Talaat sits on a plastic chair right in front of the TV screen in one downtown cafe with a group of young men. At a time when we can’t find anything to laugh at, he cheers us up, Talaat says.
Indeed, it is a gloomy time in Egypt. The political transition has been messy, marred by violence, human-rights abuses, economic downturns and a government struggling to find its way. Youssef addresses it all with humor.
“I never expected that we would have that much impact or power,” he says.
Youssef now faces a slew of legal suits accusing him of everything from insulting the president to apostasy. When he was summoned to the prosecutor general’s office late last month, the whole world watched. The news dominated airwaves in this region and beyond. Even his hero, Stewart, did a segment on Youssef.
“I’m proud of actually following the guy,” Youssef says. “So now to have actually my name mentioned in the same sentence with him, that makes me proud. So, of course, I mean, he came like a mom protecting her little bear cub, you know. He was fierce.”
It’s a far cry from where Youssef’s career began. During Egypt’s revolution in 2011, this cardiac surgeon turned comedian created the show in his laundry room and posted the videos on YouTube. Now, Internet traffic spikes in the Middle East on Saturday because of the huge number of viewers watching him on YouTube.
Maha Aboulenein, the spokeswoman for YouTube in the Middle East and North Africa, calls it the Bassem Bump.
“Bassem’s YouTube channel is the top channel in the region, in terms of traffic, in terms of views, in terms of subscribers,” she says. “He leads the region in terms of how people interact with the channel on YouTube.”
Humor: A Time-Honored Tradition
At his office, just above the theater where Youssef’s show is taped in front of a live audience each week, the staff of about 32 people is back at work, brainstorming jokes and going through potential video for the next show. At lunchtime, Youssef introduces me to the staff, steals a chicken finger from someone and leaves.
I ask Mirel Dasouri what she does on the show.
“I’m working on, like, I don’t want to say this: No, I’m going to jail, OK. I’m working on Morsi and some of the Islamic programs. So probably I’m going to jail now,” she says, laughing.
They joke even in the worst of times. It is a time-honored tradition in Egypt — and that humor resonates.
Khaled Mansour and Shadi Alfons are comedians who work with Youssef on the show.
“The show has affected Egypt on so many levels,” Mansour says.
“We hear people using catchphrases that we’ve just come up with sitting in this room. You hear it with kids. You hear it with adults,” Alfons says. “It’s a weird feeling.”
Despite the fact that the channel carrying the show could lose its license and Youssef may face jail time, he says he won’t back down: It’s his job to push the envelope, and he won’t apologize for making fun of the right wing, the leadership or expressing his opinion.
“If we back down, that would be the end of our brand,” he says. “Our brand that we use sarcasm and humor to combat stereotypes and to combat the status quo.”