World
2:21 am
Wed April 24, 2013

Egypt's Jon Stewart Says He Won't Back Down Amid Charges

Originally published on Wed April 24, 2013 7:19 pm

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.

Show's Impact

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.

'Bassem Bump'

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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And Steve and I are not alone here in Studio 31 this morning. Our colleague Kelly McEvers has joined us. Kelly, welcome.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hey, guys.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's great that you're here. People will know her voice and her name for her really distinguished coverage of the Middle East, particularly Syria. And she's getting ready to guest-host WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, coming up here in a couple of weeks.

GREENE: We're excited for that. And, Kelly, actually this next story is a Mideast story. It's your area of expertise. Why don't you introduce it?

MCEVERS: Sure, it's a story about an Egyptian man. He recently made the Time Magazine list of the most influential people in the world. He made that list even though his job is to make people laugh for a living. His name is Bassem Youssef. He's known as the Egyptian Jon Stewart.

Tonight, he appears on "The Daily Show," hosted by the man known as the American Jon Stewart.

INSKEEP: Of course.

(LAUGHTER)

MCEVERS: His last star turn was actually in front of Egyptian police who arrested him for insulting Islam. Now, his case is seen as a test of freedom of speech in the new Egypt.

Here's NPR's Leila Fadel.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: (Foreign language spoken)

(LAUGHTER)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: 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 his 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.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: On this night, the show opens with a joke about Bassem himself: Freedom is not free, so Bassem paid cash.

While it may seem like fun and games, Youssef has become the voice of frustrated Egyptians, and there are many of them. 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: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Michael Talaat sits on a plastic chair right in front of the TV screen in one downtown cafe, with a group of young men.

TALAAT: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: At a time when we can't find anything to laugh at, he cheers us up, says Talaat.

Indeed, it is a gloomy time in Egypt. The transition has been messy, marred by violence, human rights abuses, economic downturns and a government struggling to find its way. And Youssef addresses it all with humor.

YOUSSEF: I never expected that we will have that much impact or power.

FADEL: When he was summoned to the prosecutor general's office, the whole world watched. The news dominated airwaves in this region and beyond. And even his hero, Jon Stewart, did a 10-minute segment on Bassem.

YOUSSEF: I'm proud of actually following the guy. 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.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUSSEF: He was fierce.

FADEL: 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 is the spokesperson for YouTube in the Middle East and North Africa. She calls it the Bassem Bump.

MAHA ABOULENEIN: Bassem's YouTube channel is the top channel in the region. In terms of traffic, in terms of views, in terms of subscribers, he leads the region in terms of how people interact with a channel on YouTube.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: At his office, just above the theatre where Bassem 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 lunch time, Bassem introduces me to the staff, steals a chicken finger from someone and leaves.

I ask Mirel Dasouri what she does on the show.

MIREL DASOURI: I'm working on like - I don't want to say this. 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.

(LAUGHTER)

FADEL: Even in the worst of times, they joke. It is a time-honored tradition in Egypt, to laugh at everything. And that humor resonates.

Khaled Mansour and Shadi Alfons are comedians who work with Bassem on the show.

KHALED MANSOUR: The show has affected Egypt on so many levels.

SHADI ALFONS: And 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. It's a weird feeling.

FADEL: And despite the fact that the channel carrying the show could lose its license and Bassem 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.

YOUSSEF: If we back down, that would be the end of our brand. The end of our brand that we use sarcasm and humor to combat stereotypes and to combat the status quo.

FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.