Bassem Youssef: Egypt’s iconic satirist

All around the world, there are many satirical programs, whether it’s political or not, with real or made-up events. But in the Arab world, it differs. Political satirical programs are rare. They almost don’t exist.

In Tunisia, for example, there was a short program where they show puppets which look like notable politicians, and make fun of themselves and their so-called achievements. Also there was another satirical program called “The Logic.” They both were shut down.

In Egypt, the satirical programs are a little reserved, whether it’s “Azzab Show” presented by Mahmoud Azzab, or “Bany Adam Show” presented by Ahmed Adam. Most of their topics were focused on mocking artists, and their political topics in spite of being very good at many times, were a victim of censorship. As a result, it wasn’t good enough.

In other countries like Australia, Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, South Africa, United Kingdom, Turkey and others, satirical programs were already there.

In a country like the United States of America, where freedom of speech is enabled on a higher level, a satiric show presenter could have the president with him on the show and mock and criticize him face to face, like what Jon Stewart did with President Barack Obama on his “The Daily Show,” in the presence of live audience.

That’s of course impossible to happen in Egypt’s shows. Although the presenter of “The Program”, Bassem Youssef looks up to Jon Stewart, he still realizes how it is with our media and it’s still early for something like this to happen when people still don’t accept satirical shows. “The Program” isn’t the first Egyptian satirical show, but it’s the most successful and popular one.

Let’s take a look at the history of his show. Bassem Youssef before his YouTube show “B+ Bassem Youssef Show” was just an Egyptian heart surgeon, who lived and worked for a long time in Europe and the USA, until the Egyptian revolution broke out in 25th January 2011, and then the life of this doctor changed.

The doctor, who now is 39 years old, started to show his opinion and expose the contradiction of what the media people in Egypt say, just from a room in his house, with nothing more than a camera, a desk, large wallpaper behind him with photographs representing the revolution, and a big amount of database from YouTube videos.

And his media knowledge doesn’t go beyond watching numerous Egyptian and international shows. But his program which he broadcasted through YouTube garnered millions of viewers and was like the seed for more upcoming shows that started to take his approach.

Then OnTv channel took notice of him and offered him to broadcast his show on TV, to become the first person in the Arab world to make this achievement. His base of viewers widened, and his show “The Program” became one of the most watched shows till now. Bassem Youssef became a brand of his own and people started to call him “The Egyptian Jon Stewart” even before he admitted that he looks up to him, and that his show is inspired from him.

After that, Bassem moves from his small studio in OnTv, to broadcast the second season of his show “The Program” in CBC channel in Cinema Radio, which was redecorated to look like Radio City in New York.

The second season is different from the first one; the first season was broadcasted three times a week with shorter time and no audience, the new season is broadcasted once a week and has more airtime and with more varied sections, also its the first Arabic satirical show with live audience. Also the content seems to have changed a bit, as he started showcasing more artists varied from Jazz to Coral and even standup comedy, also the level of boldness is increased. The second season has strictly become a show for adults only, since there are some words that might not be suitable for all ages.

Also the way Bassem presents his show is different, in the second season there are more acting sketches, more outdoors scenes, varied costumes, even scenes where Bassem and his cast act, which is different from the first season. And like any other show, “The Program” garnered positive and negative reactions. During the first season, almost everybody loved him, as he was broadcasting during the transitional era of SCAF, so only supporters of the old regime and SCAF attacked him back then.

But in his second season, after Muslim Brotherhood became in control, he started attacking them constantly as the ruling party, which made him lose the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters’ audience. And even though he uses solid proofs that show the contradictions and mistakes their key figures make, he couldn’t escape their brutal attacks. Despite all that, “The Program” made a huge success around the world in channels like CNN, BBC and JSC and newspapers like The Guardian, and many more local and international mediums.

The negative reactions varied, as there are people who accuse Bassem Youssef of “homosexuality” and “blasphemy” and issued a lot of complaints against him because he “disrespected the president”. Youssef gets almost every week a lot of complaints issued against him. The Muslim Brotherhood key figures even showed up on their own channels and accused him of blasphemy and compared him with women. Despite all of that, “The Program” remains one of the most successful Arabic shows, and the start to the wave of satirical shows in our society which remained for too long not accustomed to criticizing the president or ruling party.

Youssef’s other activities vary, besides his work on “The Program”, he also works as a doctor and writes articles for the Egyptian newspaper “Al Shrouk”. Also he has been to Tunisia in the aftermath of revolution there, and did some special episodes on it.

He met Jon Stewart in his show in the USA, as Stewart invited him after the success of his show. Bassem then said, “He [Jon Stewart] is my role model”. Stewart complimented the show and Bassem and his crew. During his visit to the USA, he recorded a program that is shown these days, it’s called “America in Arabic”, which is about the Arabs who live in the USA and their adjustment there.

No one can deny that Bassem Youssef became an icon. Whether you agreed or disagreed with him, you can’t deny that he could easily reach out to people. Thanks to him, it’s now possible to present satirical shows to our society. If you take a look on YouTube now, you’d find dozens of shows similar to his show, all looking up to him. He opened up a gate from which people could laugh in the darkest times.

Unfortunately, some of the reports against Youssef took him to the court, as he was called for an investigation with charges like “insulting Islam” and “insulting the President” that lasted for five hours. He got out of it by paying about $2,000.

But Bassem was strong enough to mock them even before the investigation began. He went to the hearing wearing the hat he used to make fun of President Morsi. During the hearing, he was on Twitter making fun of how the officers kept asking to take photos with him and he commented, “Maybe that’s why they wanted me in the first place?”

Bassem was shocked with the number of supporters who were there, “I’m thankful for your support, but there are a lot of people who have done more and need your support”.

Although Bassem managed to get out of this situation and he even talked about it on CNN, shortly after it, another complaint was issued against him. They wanted to have him attend a hearing again, which Bassem commented on it via his twitter account, “Apparently, they want to drain me emotionally and financially.”

Bassem didn’t give up, and announced that the next episode would be broadcasted as scheduled, nothing could stop him.

In the future, people would have more freedom of speech and there’d be a lot of satirical shows, which would criticize both the president and the opposition, like Bassem does. And maybe the Arab in general, and especially Egyptians, would finally accept criticizing the president, even if they were his supporters.

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