Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s top political satirist, was back on air on October 26th after an extended summer break. His return to a country fiercely divided between supporters of the military and Islamist backers of the ousted president Mohamed Mursi was closely watched.
Youssef, who had regularly mocked Mursi and was even prosecuted for insulting the then-president, might have been expected to cheer the military coup, which came amid massive protests against the year-long rule of Egypt’s first freely elected president.
But in the 90-minute return of his show “Al-Bernameg” (The Programme), Youssef, along with his team of entertainers, poked fun at all camps – Hosni Mubarak loyalists, Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters who have staged frequent protests since July, and the fans of military chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, hailed by supporters in what AFP described as “a tide of resurgent nationalism” as the nation’s saviour.
“Sisi-mania” has gripped Egypt since Mursi’s ouster, with the general staring out from posters across the country and even looking up from chocolates named after him.
He didn’t fight shy of the most sensitive of questions – was Mursi’s overthrow a popular revolution, as backers of the military claim, or was it a coup, as the ousted president’s supporters say? A medical doctor by profession, Youssef’s programme which is modelled on popular American comedian Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, is widely popular says Al Jazeera.
While many Egyptians are delighted to have Youssef back and daring to criticize all sides, several legal complaints were quickly filed with the attorney general against him, including one by members of a group calling for Sisi to be president.
Prime Ministr Hazem Beblawi said he did not expect the show to be suspended, adding that the freedom to criticise was needed.
The first episode ended with Youssef saying, “Nobody can tell us what to say” as an arm appeared from underneath his desk and replaced his script. He then shouted, “We want freedom!”, only for the hand to slap him on the face repeatedly and wag a finger at him.
Egypt does have a rich tradition of political humour despite having been ruled by autocrats for most of its history but tensions are running high, with more than a thousand people – mainly Mursi supporters – having died in street clashes and militant attacks since early July.
Widely varying opinions on Youssef’s return appeared on social media, with some Facebook groups even calling for his arrest, said AFP. Youssef himself took to Twitter, responding drily to his critics: “Egyptians like jokes and irony, it’s true, but especially when they match their own ideas.”
On October 28th Egypt’s chief prosecutor Hesham Barakat ordered an investigation into a complaint alleging that Youssef harmed national interests by ridiculing the country’s military.