Bassem Youssef is a man who has had a handle on the pulse of the Egyptian people, both in the literal sense during his time as a cardiac surgeon and in a more figurative sense as a host of a popular Egyptian political satire show. Bassem attended Cairo University where he studied to be a surgeon, specializing in cardiovascular.
However, Bassem moved away from surgically cutting heart and stepped into the role of getting into the heart of the matter when he entered the realm of journalism.
His time as a satirical political commentator earned him many accolades and unique praise, including being listed in 2013 as one of Time magazine’s ‘top 100 most influential people in the world’, awarded the ‘international press freedom award’ again in 2013 and being called a friend of the American TV talk show host Jon Stewart.
Bassem: Egypt’s Jon Stewart
His entry into political commentary had quite humble beginnings, starting off with short five minute webisodes called B+, Bassem’s blood type, which were posted on the video sharing platform Youtube. The videos, despite being filmed in a laundry room and far from the glamour of a typical TV show studio as you can get, became immensely popular and in only three months gained over 5 million views. This popularity resulted in Bassem and his fellow creators being offered by ONTV the opportunity of moving their satirical and cutting political talk to Egyptian television, with a TV show titled ‘Al-Bernameg’. This show tackled pressing issues in a daring blunt yet still humorous manner. Jon Stewart, who was an inspiration for Bassem in his own media endeavours, praised the show, describing it as sharp, smart and very well executed.
However, despite being praised and watched by many; the show garnered heavy criticism primarily from Egyptian authorities. In 2012 the show was lampooned for alleged insults towards Islam, former president Mohamed Morsi and for a general cause of disruption to public peace. Criticism reached an all-time high in October 2013 with numerous complaints put forth regarding the show, including accusations that Bassem had insulted the armed forces and the acting president, Adly Mansour. This censure resulted in strife with CBC, Al-Bernameg’s broadcaster, which eventually resulted in the show being pulled from its channels. Following this cancellation, Bassem was suspended from his next channel due to continuing controversy and widespread criticism. This second disruption to the airing of the show, alongside the constant controversy and criticism, seemed to be the straw that broke the long labouring camel’s back, resulting in Bassem terminating the Al-Bernameg show. When asked on his actions, Bassem said he felt that his safety and the safety of his family mattered more than a TV show.
Silence in Egypt
This act of succumbing to national pressure and the forsaking of freedom of speech has unfortunately been a regular occurrence in Egypt, especially since its military takeover. This was starkly evident during Mohamed Morsi 2012-2013 leadership, who issued cease and desist notices to private media organizations and threatened to have them shut down if they did not cease their criticism of him.
Even though the current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared that his ‘new’ Egypt would have ‘no limitation on freedom of expression’. He went on to say that anyone could be criticized, even himself, without any fear of consequence. This though has been far from the reality of the situation. As it is frequently cited, actions speak louder than words, and the actions of Egyptian officials in relation to the media and freedom of speech have caused these to be nothing more than empty pretty declarations. There are threats and intimidation tactics regularly enacted towards journalists from authority figures, a constant censoring of articles and the removal of issues of newspapers from circulation due to dissatisfaction with content. Just late last year, an issue of the private newspaper, ‘Al Masry Al Youm’ was removed due to it having presented a posthumous interview with the former intelligence agent Refaat Jibril. This article then was ordered to be removed from the paper by security officials without any kind of explanation.
There is a perceived imperative need to conduct this careful control of speech for the stability of their government, a sentiment which even some journalists seem to be adhering to of late. In October 2014, editors from 17 newspapers issued a shared declaration not to criticize the state or the army in their publications. It was felt that a united front is needed and that journalists have a responsibility to aid in the stability of their country.