Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has retained his ability to divide audiences years after being removed from TV screens by authorities in his native country.
During a live performance on the media’s role in Egyptian events, audience members were unable to contain their anger or love for him or each other, from cheering and heckling him to threatening one another.
The event was “a demonstration not just of freedom of speech but the stupidity that goes against freedom of speech,” he explained, in an obvious attack against those who persistently heckled him interrupting the show, questioning his loyalty to both his country and president.
“Satire was too much for some people to handle,” he told a packed auditorium.
In his usual tongue-in-cheek nature, Youssef regaled the audience with the story of his rise to fame and how the media stirred the revolutions and unrest in Egypt.
A medical doctor, Youssef decided to try his hand at comedy on YouTube in 2010. During Hosni Mubarak’s era “you can’t speak about politics, so I started to speak about God.” He said he expected his videos to receive no more than 10,000 hits but within months he had millions.
His wit and ability to make viewers laugh in the face of the developments in their country drew him much attention both at home and abroad. He quickly became known as the Arabic Jon Stewart, and later appeared on his idol’s show in America. Youssef’s own show Al-Bernameg was taken off air during its third series soon after the coup in 2013.
After only 11 episodes the TV station manager called him to tell him: “Egypt doesn’t need you any more, we need light comedy.” But, Youssef continued, to him it was obvious that a call had been made. “In the Middle East everything happens by phone calls, of course there was pressure,” he said alluding to the fact authorities disliked his representation of them and had him silenced.
“To qualify to be an Arab country, you have to be stuck in a revolution or in traffic… We are Egyptians, we qualify for both.”
“I send all my friends to Egypt, they never come back, they’re stuck at the same traffic light,” he said.
The predominantly Egyptian audience at first laughed at Youssef’s representation of the country and its recent history, but tensions rose as he moved on to its more recent past.
“If you think we started the revolution because we wanted freedom and justice, you’re mistaken, we did it because we were jealous,” he said. Egyptians weren’t going to be “upstaged” by Tunisians, he explained. “We saw this [Tunisian revolution] and we made it bigger.”
“When we were on the street the revolution was the purest thing ever… But for the people watching television it was a different story, it was not a revolution it was a conspiracy.”
In a 90 minute show at the Curzon Mayfair in London, Youssef highlighted how, since the start of the revolution, the Egyptian media played the same cards to “manipulate the public” and “alienate them from the revolution”.
They did this, he explained, by accusing demonstrators of being foreigners, enemies of the state, spies, Zionists or being sexually motivated, “this is an indirect licence to kill. It’s fine to kill them, they are disposable… Because they are infidels, because they are against the country, because they are against Islam.”
“They put me as part of the conspiracy.”
Youssef’s political satire continued with blows to the three regimes which have governed Egypt since 2010. Following 18 days of the revolution in 2011, Mubarak “stepped down after 30 years in office,” which is, we were told, “in Middle Eastern terms his first term.”
Now, however, “to change a government in Egypt all you need is a couple of tanks and a few guns and you’re there.”
He did however stop at direct jokes about the Muslim Brotherhood saying: “Now we cannot make fun of them, we can’t make fun of people who’ve been imprisoned or killed.”
Though Youssef’s rapport, presentation, use of slides and video footage of the television coverage of the revolutions over the years were enlightening and humorous, it was the audience’s reactions and interactions that made the evening truly memorable.
Supporters of President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi shouted: “Sisi is the best president in the world,” to large gasps. Others questioned Youssef’s love for Egypt: “You insult Al-Sisi, and Al-Sisi is Egypt.”
The audience kept itself entertained and kept security staff and the event organisers on their toes.
Youssef repeated his gratitude for people who came to his show forking out up to £150 even though they opposed him. They should have saved themselves the trip and just handed him the cash, he said.
He had previously warned us that when he was given the option of going to America to “continue to be a doctor and heal children’s hearts” or “the money and fame and empty life of celebrity”, he chose “the life” and it’s obviously paid off for him as he announced he has a book in the pipeline, a documentary about his life and he’s working on a new satire show in the US based on politics from a Middle Eastern perspective.
“My show may be off air, but I see how it inspires people,” he concluded.