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The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged bassem youssef
Egypt in TV: Sisi's UN speech, Bassem Youssef's bad manners, a women's coup

What's been on the small screen in Egypt lately, from our TV correspondent Nour Youssef. 

Egypt’s talk show hosts may have always been unethical and unprofessional, but they have never been quite this childish. It is hard to watch Ahmed Moussa giggle whenever his guests call the Qatari royal family and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan names (for their support of the Muslim Brotherhood), and not think of my fourth grade arch enemy, Khaled Picksnosealot.

Last month there were five on-air fights (followed by numerous opportunities for the analysis and re-iteration of insults). One of the fights ended with business tycoon Naguib Sawiris comparing Al Kahera Wal Nas’s Abdelrahim Ali (who has become infamous lately for playing private telephone conversations of activists, undoubtedly leaked to him by the security services)  to "an annoying fly that gets into the mouths of others."  Another was started by the unknown founders of a failed Tamarod-like movement who complained about not getting a share of the praise for toppling president Mohamed Morsi in a seventh grade history book.

“(Mohamed Hassanein) Heikal is the one who made the theory that has held us back all this time!” announced Tamer Amin, who’s had enough of the reverence that the veteran political analyst and historian enjoys in the media. According to Amin, Heikal is guilty of giving the same advice to every Egyptian president: To put only those he can trust, and not those who are competent, in positions of leadership -- advice they all followed religiously, thus holding the country back. It is time to move on to younger thinkers, Amin says. Especially since “most of (Heikal)’s ’judgements and his political prophecies in the past years were wrong.” He ended this virtually unprecedented attack with a reminder that there are over 90 million Egyptians -- surely one of them can fill Heikal's shoes.

The strangest fight so far, however, was between satirist Bassem Youssef (who went into a forced retirement earlier this year when Egypt's "democratic transition" gave him more freedom of expression than he could handle) and AlQahera AlYoum’s Khaled Abu Bakr in New York. According to the latter’s side of the story (which is the whole story as far as the media is concerned), an unprovoked Youssef walked up to him to grudgingly say hello and then came back a moment later screaming obscenities and complaints about not being able to cycle on the Suez road unlike President Abdelfatah el-Sisi, whom he accused Abu Bakr and his colleagues of shamelessly shilling for. Youssef said all this in full view of women and impressionable children, every talk show from Tamer Amin to Osama Mounir took care to note. Even Mortada Mansour – a lawyer who has made a career of picking fights with public figures and threatening to publish the details of their affairs -- gasped at the idea of a man cursing in front of his wife, or worse yet, cursing the people of Egypt. (Anyone who has been to Egypt knows that the people of Egypt curse the people of Egypt all the time.)

The endless reprimands to “The Boy” (Youssef’s new derogatory nickname) included suggestions of emigration and of revoking of his citizenship; a photo-shopped picture of him as a rabbi from Moussa and a monologue from Mounir about how Youssef will never be back on TV because Sisi is a “decent” man who won’t stand by as Youssef expands the vocabulary of innocent Egyptian women, making them prone to lewd behavior and talking back.

This current talk show obsession with manners is an embarrassingly obvious attempt to tap into the viewers’ sense of traditional masculinity, according to which no "decent" man would distress a woman by spoiling her delicate wafer-like ears with profanities, and to shame “impolite” (and thus amoral and thus unpatriotic) political opponents.

That being said, the Best Fight Award goes to Egyptian Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail and Adel Hamouda. It all started when the former naively referred to Morsi as a scientist (Morsi is an engineer with a PhD from the University of Southern California) and was not cowed by his disgusted interviewer, Lamis el-Hadidi’s, murderous looks.

 “Ahmed Zewail needs to go to a psychiatrist,” Hamouda declared. “Zewail has changed.” According to Hamouda’s understanding of medicine, when a person survives a health crisis (which Zewail recently has) the ensuing anxiety  causes changes in said person’s level of patriotism and ability to identify people by profession. Shockingly, when Hamouda met Zewail after the episode, the good-for-nothing chemist failed to accept his televised diagnosis.

Every local talk show host would also have us believe that the world is still reeling from the greatness of el-Sisi’s speech to the United Nations. Back home Ibrahim Eissa painfully parsed the president’s speech, noting his use of “modest” sentences like "the people realize and I realize," which highlighted his subliminal respect for the individuality of the nation. "See how the realization of the Egyptian people (differs) from his realization...he is the echo of the people...his realization is based on the realization of the people...he didn’t even self-inflate and refer to himself in plural!”  

Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth, who dared to Tweet that Sisi did not in fact receive a standing ovation, was indignantly attacked by the Egyptian media and Twittersphere.

Eissa continues to spearhead a campaign against what is left of Egypt's Islamist movement, although the remaining parties, like the Salafis, publicly sided with Sisi against the Muslim Brotherhood. But Eissa thinks allowing the 11 Islamist parties to continue to exist in Egypt is a crime against itself and its constitution, which bans any political parties based on religion. This prompted the head of the Salafi Al-Nour Party to call Wael el-Ibrashy and explain that his party is a lot like the constitution he helped write: they both use Islam as reference point, which in his world is not the same thing as being “based on religion.” That three-word sentence means that a party’s membership would exclude followers of other religions and that the party would monopolize religious rhetoric, he says.

Amr Adeeb lectured men about how important it is to continue to throw one's pants on the floor and not do one's dishes, to prevent "a coup" by women around the world (I wonder why he has coups on his mind?) Good thing we got rid of those misogynist Islamists. 


 Adeeb also opened his TV set to self-styled oracle Tawfik Okasha, who has  temporarily lost his own show to what he calls “corruption in advertising.” Okasha came on to remind the viewers that those who don’t believe the conspiracies he and his colleagues tell them don’t believe in God, since the devil is at the heart of the global conspiracy against Arabs and Muslims. He also wanted to be the first to say that Egypt will have a parliament in less than two months and that it will invade Libya in 6 months to fight the Islamists there.

Meanwhile Amany el-Khayat argued that Daesh (the organization now known as the (un) Islamic State)  “is a Western creation because it is an acronym and Arabs don’t do acronyms!” Wael el-Ibrashy showed two kids eat raw chicken on TV and Gaber el-Karmouty acted out how he tried and failed to pee in a public urinal, because journalism.

Bassem Youssef on Sisi's austerity program

Our friends at Industry Arabic (where you can get all your translation needs met) have translated a recent reaction by satirist Bassem Youssef (who was taken off the air recently in case he might "influence" the presidential vote) to presidential candidate Abdel Fattah El Sisi's seeming economic austerity program for the Egyptian people. 

How am I Supposed to Provide for You?

By Bassem Youssef

No sooner did I finish watching Field Marshal al-Sisi's speech to young people than I jumped out of my chair with a determination to go to the nearest gathering of doctors and dissuade them from their partial strike. Al-Sisi has managed to completely change my ideas about Egypt and its ungrateful people who just want to take and not give anything to their dear mother, Egypt.

Al-Sisi tells us in a voice replete with tenderness and affection that only a traitor or foreign agent would quibble with: "You have to give more than you take." He said that this is what he told his officers to encourage them in discharging their duties towards the people. Then he cited the lovely example of poor parents whose son graduates from university and goes on to pay them back. Al-Sisi wished that such behavior would become common.

In fact, I could use this lovely example to convince the ungrateful doctors who just ask, "What will I get from Egypt?" while not one of them stops to consider, "What will I give to Egypt?"

The ungrateful doctor studied and crammed, then went to spend his residency in remote areas, then was appointed as a physician in the Ministry of Health, spending long hours in the hospital. He is forced to chase after dispensaries and decrepit hospitals just to get enough to pay his telephone bill. The state bestows upon him an exorbitant salary, as you know. So to hell with those doctors who dare to ask for anything from Egypt.

I remember how about a year and a half ago, the Muslim Brotherhood doctors occupied the general assembly of the Doctors' Syndicate to thwart calls for a strike. At that time, both men and women occupied the seats and performed Friday prayer in their chairs – without facing the correct direction or segregating the sexes – just to guarantee that the motion to strike would be defeated. At the time, the Brotherhood's line was, "The doctors have to put up with it for the sake of Egypt" and fatwas came down declaring it impermissible to go on strike. This was back when the Brotherhood was buddy-buddy with the regime in power.

Remember this scene today because in the upcoming days the same doctors who stood against the Muslim Brotherhood are going to be accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and terrorists to boot.

Three years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood organized the "Put me to work in his place" campaign to support the Military Council against strikes and the workers' revolution.

Remember this as well, when strikes break out in the country and the media says that they're all Muslim Brotherhood members.

I changed my mind about going to the site of the strike, since it seems that the argument "What have you given to Egypt?" is not going to work with those ungrateful people.

I went back to finish al-Sisi's speech, in which he asked young people, "Before you have breakfast, did you ask yourself, 'What have I done for Egypt?'"

Hmm, ok that's a powerful question. I could go to workers' strikes in factories and drivers’ strikes in the Public Transportation Authority, and no doubt, no doubt I would find them stuffed on breakfast and the whole thing just some crybaby act to enable them to take from Egypt without giving anything.

The same person who said that Egypt will be as big as the world, in this speech tells young people – with the same tenderness – that young people should think about Egypt before they think about "when I'll get married and when I'll live."

It's as if Egypt were some virtual, mythical being that can only live on the remains of young people who have no livelihood, who don't think about marriage, and who don't have breakfast until they have thought about how to offer themselves up as a sacrifice to this mythological being.

I understand al-Sisi's speech very well. He is encouraging young people not to be selfish, to respect the value of altruism, and to consider that their actions reflect on the country. All this is very nice. However, I wonder: Who is al-Sisi directing his words at? Is he directing them at young people who can't get married or is he directing them at beaten-down workers and unemployed people who don't have the luxury of having breakfast before thinking about Egypt?

Al-Sisi poses the question: "Have any of us considered walking to our university or place of work in order to do help the country save?"

Actually, that's a genius solution to reduce pollution in Cairo. However, practically speaking, does al-Sisi realize that there are people living in Badrashin, Qalyoub and Bashteel who work or study in central Cairo? If the Egyptian people go along with this noble logic, will Cabinet ministers and army officers and generals follow suit, and we'll all do without cars and public transport? Or are we going to count on the poor embarking on this daily exercise on our behalf? This is of course after they go without breakfast because they have a guilt complex that they haven't done anything for Egypt.

This austerity discourse is not new for us. Before al-Sisi it was Mubarak who was makin us sick with his famous sayings, such as: "How am I supposed to provide for you?" Now it's al-Sisi telling us: "Health insurance? Ok but from where?" "Work? Ok but how?" Must we really do wrong by a whole generation or two (or so he says) so that the others survive? We don't even know who these others are! Are they what's left of the people after the next thirty years of injustice (two generations, that is) or are they the ones in the circles of power who wreck the state budget with exorbitant salaries, commissions and allowances – and then we go to the workers and doctors and tell them there's "nothing left"?

Does al-Sisi's economic program revolve around "Put up with it," "Tighten your belts" and "Practice austerity"?

If that's his program, he should direct it at state institutions and not young people and citizens. If ordinary citizens practiced austerity, then you would destroy purchasing power in the country and cause an economic depression.

During the Great Depression, instead of America tightening its belt and calling on citizens to go even hungrier than they were already, Rockefeller and the other captains of American industry pumped large amounts of money into the economy using state facilities, in order to undertake the largest rebuilding effort in North America.

Recessions and inflation are not fixed by belt-tightening but by encouraging citizens and investors to circulate their money in the market. Austerity is something applied to state spending – and it goes much further than a resolution banning mineral water at Cabinet meetings.

Before al-Sisi went and asked us "What have you given Egypt?" maybe it would have been better to ask this question of the army's economic establishments, which control a vast portion of the country's economy without any real accountability or tax liability – through which Egypt could collect its due from those who really did take what they wanted.

Austerity "and that's it" isn't a solution. "Belt-tightening" policies do not build the economies of nations. Nations are built by a healthy climate for investment and job creation, fair taxes for everyone (I repeat, everyone) and an environment that is suitable for attracting capital, by guaranteeing disclosure and transparency – even on the part of the army's economic institutions. But labels like "reducing spending" and "saving" only apply to publicly-funded institutions. If you want to abolish subsidies, then disqualify the rich, the affluent and the factories – all of whom are charged the same rates for electricity as the poor. We need to try that before we consider asking Egyptians working abroad to donate a month's salary or before we try to impose a levy on them in the form of a tax or through sentimental words.

Mr. Field Marshal, Egypt's sons abroad have previously tried to contribute to the country through educational or development project, but many of them went back abroad, either because of corruption, bureaucracy or political inflexibility. And Mr. Field Marshal, the media has treated anyone with a second nationality or even any Egyptian who has lived abroad as a traitor or foreign agent until proven otherwise.

What's strange is that the media that gobbled up the expression "As big as the world" nods its head in approval when listening to claims about belt-tightening, "We'll put up with it" and Egypt's dire conditions. And yet this is the same media that mocked Morsi and Hisham Qandil and their ilk when they spoke about wearing cotton clothing to cope better with the heat and closing shops at night to save electricity. Now, however, the media is the one calling on the people to wake up at five in the morning to go to work. But it seems they didn't catch what al-Sisi said: "People want work, ok but from where?"

The people are not a burden on the nation; they're human potential that needs to be put to use.

Egypt is not some entity that is separate from us and that needs to feed off of us, whereby we die that this entity may live. Egypt is the young people who want to get married and live; Egypt is the worker who wants a humane salary; Egypt is the doctor who wants a dignified existence in order to serve Egypt's ill – who themselves deserve decent health care.

Egypt is "us." Egypt isn't state institutions that are shielded from disclosure, accountability and tax audits under the pretext of national security, while the simple people austerely walk to university or their job (if they have one) and don't think about when they'll get married or how they'll live.

Is this the economic program that the country can expect? More of "Have patience," "How am I supposed to provide for you?" and "Well you see, it's because there's so many of you and you just keep increasing."

It might succeed, who knows. Let's ask the average citizen about the effects of such a program after several years, and I'm sure that he will answer you very cheerily as he thinks about the country before partaking of a non-existent breakfast, and he'll smile at you in satisfaction as he tightens his belt on what remains of his skeleton.



Bassem Youssef on the Egyptian media's "Great Writers"

Another entry in our In Translation series, courtesy of the excellent team Industry Arabic. Comedian Bassem Youssef had his hit satirical news show pulled -- after just one episode -- last Fall. While he looks for new options, he has been one of the few voices of reason and conscience and humor in Egyptian op-ed pages. This column appeared a few weeks back, but what it has to say about local media's free use of anonymous sources, rumors and conspiracy theories is still (and unfortunately will probably remain for a long time ) relevant.

Your Dear Old Professionalism is Dead, Shorouk newspaper, 24 December

by Bassem Youssef

What I read was not the typical sort of Facebook nonsense. And it wasn't a "prank" on one of those fake forums; it was a respectable article penned by the Great Writer.

There are a few names that just need to appear on any article for it to receive the "stamp of authority." For the Great Writer and Journalist cannot just flush his history down the drain and publish "any old drivel and that's it."

But between the "stamp of authority" and what I read I'm at a loss about what to believe.

Here the Writer is narrating true and accurate details about what happened between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler.

And oh my what details!!!

The Secretary of State conveys to the king serious information about Qatar and their relations with Israel and the article goes on to relate how the Secretary of State fidgeted and how the Ruler cleared his throat. The article narrates with great precision what the US Secretary of State told him, from the opening "Allow me, Your Highness, to tell you a critical secret," to secret phone calls between Obama, the emir of Qatar and Erdogan, to how a Syrian minister snuck into Jordan dressed as a woman, to details about the latest episode of "Sponge Bob."

The article did everything short of following the minister into the bathroom!!!

The article was not a general account of what happened between the two parties – you know, the big picture. It was a word-by-word script with choice lines from a screenplay by Osama Anwar Okasha.

I'm not casting doubts on the credibility of the Great Writer, and I'm not accusing him of lying. However, the Great Writer and his comrades from among the legends of Arab journalism are the first ones who told us that if a writer writes something for his readers, he has to have sources for it. I read the article from start to finish and didn't find a single source….at all.

All that's written is that "someone trustworthy" told him these things.

Who's the layabout source that would spin these yarns?

So why were we upset with the Islamists?

Weren’t their show nothing but a steady 24-hour stream of "I was told" and "He told me and I told him”?

So why are we upset? It's enough that thousands of people read the article and really believed this friendly dialogue between the US Secretary of State and the Gulf State Ruler, and that they exchange the Arabian Nights stories that this article is chock-full of.

The problem is that, unfortunately,  this type of writing, which was invented by a Great Writer in the Sixties, has become acceptable in Arab journalism, and since then "bullshitting" has become a lifestyle for many who were at the forefront of the Egyptian newspaper scene.

There's an entire generation that grew up hearing urban legends about how Sadat put poison in Nasser's cup of coffeee. And for you to be able to know this story, either Sadat told you or Nasser came back from the dead and told you, or you yourself were hiding in the coffee pot.

This Writer who confounds us every two months with a new book about the secrets of the intelligence services, the presidency and the army and who by sheer dumb luck just happens to be present at the right time and place to hear what Mubarak, Tantawy, Anan and Morsi all said. This is in addition to his uncanny ability to get in the good graces of Mubarak, Morsi and anyone else he ends up with. And let's not forget that "the Minister of Defense will force himself to run against his will;” Congratulations!

Then you have the other Writer who every now and then will inform us about the plots that American intelligence is hatching and divulge to us what spy agencies around the world are telling us. I recall that at the time of the trial of the human rights NGOs when the Americans fled, the Great Journalist told viewers that he had verified information that the US army was going to land helicopters on the roof of the American embassy to evacuate the people working in these NGOs. As a result, those in power were forced to give in and allow them to be smuggled out so such a scandal would not take place. Of course the Great Writer thought that he was thereby serving the Military Council by relating this ridiculous scenario so that people would say: "This is God's grace and wisdom.  Thank God America didn't get the better of us."

Do you get it? A helicopter penetrates Egyptian airspace like it's nothing, crosses the Delta and gets past the air defense systems -- again no big deal -- then the welcome mat is rolled out for these aircraft to reach downtown. Finally, these helicopters land – nothing to see here – on the roof of the embassy and get these people out of Egypt. All while we – pardon the expression – sit around like a sack of potatoes.

But why? The Military Council at that time – how awful! – was forced into this shameful solution so that Egypt wouldn't be put to shame by a landing operation. Although this boot-licking scenario is actually more shameful to the country and its rulers. But it seems that the Great Writer "didn't think it through." But no matter, is there anyone who's paying attention or remembering these stories?

I don't mind that there are these people who know the inside story of all these matters – I wish you nothing but the best, good fellow! But I have a question about all these nice stories that these people are circulating about America, Obama and intelligence agencies: how did these stories escape the notice of American newspapers, American media outlets and American oversight bodies to end up in our newspapers and books, out of all of God's good creation?

Do you remember the story of Khairat El-Shater, who sold Sinai for 80 million dollars? Do you remember the documented information that Obama's brother is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood? Do you remember the documented information that came from a German base where a meeting took place between the great powers, and newspapers published details of the foul conspiracy that these countries were plotting against Egypt? How is it that the "respectable" newspapers and "respectable" talk shows were able to dedicate large amounts of space to discuss this villainous conspiracy -- then days later, we forgot the villainous conspiracy and Egypt's leaders sat with representatives of these countries that had plotted against us, as if it was nothing?

Doesn't it get you riled up or make you proud if you believe that neither the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN or any American media outlets were able to obtain this information, yet the bold, heroic journalists of Egyptian newspapers were able to get a hold of it so the "super" professional broadcasters could circulate it on Egyptian TV?

Do you remember the Egyptian talk show stars who reported statements about the Brotherhood, Morsi, Morsi's wife and Ezzat al-Garf -- but they were reporting statements from fake Twitter accounts?

Have you followed the transcripts of the calls attributed to Morsi and the rest of the Brotherhood leadership?

Have any of us heard them? If these calls describe their treason in detail, why are the Egyptian people not allowed to hear them? If journalists are allowed to publish transcripts of these recordings, then what objection is there to releasing the recording themselves?

I remember now the famous program that was broadcasting the events of 30 June moment by moment; The presenters in the studio were determined to read funny tweets from an account attributed to Mohamed Morsi, while the journalist sitting in their midst was trying to explain that this Twitter account was satirical. But the veteran presenter insisted on reading this fluff as if it were real.

Now the ground is ripe for such beings known as strategic experts to emerge, and for journalists who were educated at the same "Great Writer School" of the poisoned coffee cup. And nobody gives a thought to consulting sources or asking for proof of the bullshit that they spew.

My dear reader, I'm asking you to review all the information that you've read on Facebook or on websites that you think are news websites, or from presenters that read their news from these sites. How may pieces of news turned out to be true? How many pieces of news were confirmed by global news sources?

To be frank, the answer to this question is: "It doesn't matter." This news sooths your nerves because it is against those you hate. So there is no need for us to check it or verify its sources.

This is the same sin that the Islamists were guilty of before. They did not hesitate to use rumours and fabrications no matter the source, as long as it served their aims.

Now the Islamists are gone and the rumors remain, but going in the opposite direction.

Egypt's Jon Stewart on Comedy and Politics
Our old friend Liam Stack has a great interview with comedian Bassem Youssef on the New York Times' Lede blog: 
Q. The last three years have been very turbulent for Egypt, since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak. Looking back, what do you think have been the most important lessons from that time?

A. The most important lessons? That Egypt is totally unpredictable, and if you think you’ve got it figured out you’re wrong. And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news.


No laughing matter

My latest for the NYTimes' Latitude blog is about the ongoing suspension of Bassem Youssef's hit satirical show El Barnameg ("The Show"). 

The first episode of the new season (in Arabic).

When the Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef came back on the air late last month, everyone wondered whether he would have the courage to mock the army and its leader, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, as he once did the Islamists and former President Mohamed Morsi — and whether he’d get away with it.

Youssef’s satirical news show, “Al Bernameg” (“The Show”), was off during Egypt’s bloody, turbulent summer. Youssef’s return performance, on Oct. 25, poked fun at the over-the-top jingoism that has followed the army’s ouster of Morsi. It featured a skit in which a baker selling Sisi-themed pastries pressures the presenter into buying more than he wants (“You don’t like Sisi or what?”). In another skit, Egypt, portrayed as a silly housewife, calls in to a TV show to talk about the end of her disastrous marriage to an Islamist and her new crush on a military officer.

That was it for Youssef’s show: It was suspended. On top of that, the public prosecutor announced that he was investigating 30 different complaints filed against the comedian for insulting the army.

You can read the rest here

The Bassem Youssef case

A lot of ink has been spilled already over the charges that have been filed (by individuals absolutey not formally affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party) against Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef of insulting the president, and religion, and Pakistan.

I was (I think) the first English-language journalist to profile Bassem, back when he was filming his show in a room of his appartment (and I can barely ever claim to being a trend-spotter). I have been following his career with interest ever since, as he has morphed into a social and media phenomenon and, now, a test case in the ways the revolution may have broken the stale old bounds public discourse. 

Sarah Carr has written a great post about the double standards here regarding what "proper" language and behaviour is. Youssef has challenged this by speaking and joking in a way that is much closer to the way people actually express themselves -- this is the basis of his appeal and of people's discomfort with him. 

After being questioned by the Public Prosecutor, and being featured on the Daily Show, and causing a minor diplomatic spat on Twitter between the US Embassy in Cairo and the presidency, Youssef dedicated an entire show to Qatar, the "little brother" that is buying up Egypt now (and supposedly backing the Brotherhood). Please forgive me for linking to MEMRI, but here is a sub-titled video of the send-up of Arab nationalism that has become an instant classic. 

French academic Yves Gonzalez-Quljano has a great analysis on his blog Culture et politique Arabes, in which he writes: "Plunging his scalpel unceremoniously into the open sore of national amour propre, with only a strong dose of humour for anaesthesia, the former surgeon has seemingly dashed any hopes on the regime's part of silencing him. More than ever, he can count on powerful supporters, not just among the defenders of freedom of expression around the world, but even more among Egyptians, who were hit in the heart -- the expression isn't too strong -- by a parody of nationalist operetta that provoked exasperation and enthusiasm." 

Youssef's influence and reach is such that the show was enough to ignite a public debate -- and a lot more satire --  over Qatar's growing leverage and influence. In Qatar (where I travelled just last week) the public reaction was more muted but predictably negative. But after a visit from Prime Minister Hesham Qandil probably intended to smooth things over, Qatar pledged several more billion dollars in assistance. 

The other failed dialogue

A couple of weeks ago I received a very funny email out the of blue from Nour Youssef, a young reader of the website. It started like this: “Would you be interested in taking on a slave under the pretense of an internship?” After some further quite funny correspondence and a meeting, we decided to try things out — I was not sure I had the time to work with an intern but she was persistent. She calls me Mr Miyagi and I have created a rule for my email that takes her emails and files them under a folder labelled “grasshopper”.[1] She has heen sending me some very useful links and notes that I will be putting up periodically. A few days ago, she went to the debate AUC hosted between ”Egypt’s Jon Stewart“ Bassem Youssef and ultra-conservative Islamist from the Gamaa Islamiya (once a terrorist group) Nageh Ibrahim. This is her account of the debate, and serves as the inaugural post of the contributor who shall henceforth be referred to as ”Nour the intern”.

  1. Fans of The Karate Kid will appreciate.  ↩

The debate on political satire between the famous political satirist, Bassem Youssef, and member of Gamaaa Islamiyaa Nageh Ibrahim, moderated by Hafez Al-Mirazi at AUC on February 7, did not have much to do with political satire or debating. While Bassem Youssef stood his ground, Nageh Ibrahim defied gravity to hover several inches above his.

Ibrahim, who is an accurate representation of the current Salafi mood — in the sense that he is a loyal Morsi supporter, but is openly, and politely, critical of the Muslim Brotherhood — was under palpable pressure to liberalize his views to mollify the high-class audience of embittered liberals and moderates, whose main reason for attending (apart from admiring Bassem Youssef up-close) was to see an Islamist get an intellectual beat down and have the “Islam they know and love” reinforced. They got more than they bargained for: a subdued and eager-to-please Salafi who let Youssef set the tone for the argument-turned-ditto and was content to smile benevolently and merely build on Youssef’s points.

In brief, Youssef’s main points were that a) islamists, at least the ones in power, have monopolized Islam, appointed themselves its guardian and official spokesperson, b) they used their religious standing to demonize their political opponents via labeling, citing examples like the Islamic bonds, the Islamic project, etc (all of which have little to do with religion but were nonetheless marketed as divine products), and c) that if the islamists continue their abuse of religion, they will alienate — and even disgust — people from it. He used his non-islamist family by way of example, saying that they voted for the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 and 2010 parliamentary elections, but then turned against them because of their offensively exclusive statements and later on, offensive decrees.

Every point received a hot round of applause, whistles and wooos from the crowd, which seemed willing to cheer for just about any noise Youssef made and boo anyone who said something they didn’t like the sound of. Despite Youssef repeatedly, often jokingly, reminding them that “democracy is about listening to things you don’t want to hear, ” the scene was somewhat reminiscent of Islamist protests, where Brothers and Salafis would chant against mustard if it pleased the cleric.

Across Youssef’s charm and his command of the overflowing auditorium, sat an awkward Nageh Ibrahim, who cautiously agreed with everything Youssef said and spent his speaking turn paraphrasing Youssef’s points in fancy Arabic, including references to his books to prove for the consistency of his views.

When it came times for questions, members of the audience took the opportunity to make snide comments directed at a cornered Ibrahim; most of these remarks were focused on what Ibrahim conceded to calling “the deterioration of the Islamists’ rhetoric” and actual demands to denounce the Brotherhood in disguise, whereas the questions for Youssef lacked substance and were more like musings. “Err- where do you see Egypt in 50 years? ” an old man asked him. “No one knows where we are going to be in five months. We don’t know where we are going, but let’s hope we have fun going there, ” Youssef joked.

Meanwhile, Ibrahim was held responsible for everything any bearded man has said or done since 2010.

“Tell (the Islamists) that these liberals and seculars (they) attack, may not look very religious on the outside, but some of them are more religious and closer to God than they are! ” yelled a man into an innocent microphone, earning him loud cheers. “Why don’t Islamists ever criticize the president? ” asked a young AUC student, after sarcastically noting the Islamists’ unwavering support for Morsi’s decrees before and after they are declared and canceled. “Who’s really funding the Brotherhood? ” and “Hey, answer the question, old man! ”

Again and again, Ibrahim would strain to smile and almost demurely voice his reserved agreement or watered-down view.

For instance, when asked to comment on the fatwas issued, by famous Islamists like Mahmoud Shaaban, permitting the murder of opposition figures, Ibrahim uncomfortably dismissed them as the actions of “an odd few” and not respected religious figures. “Surely, we are not going to listen to the words of one young scholar out of 30 good ones, ” he concluded, anxiously. Adding that Islamists were and are not infallible – ignoring their claims to the contrary – and denouncing the labeling of liberals and seculars as ‘infidels’ because that’s Allah’s business, going as far as claiming that the majority of Islamists share this sentiment. “These words are good, but their application is bad, ” Youssef remarked, with an obvious note of speculation in his tone. He repeated that line after every particularly optimistic claim Ibrahim made.

The climax of the debate was when Ibrahim was asked for his thoughts on the Brotherhood and Morsi’s performance as president. After the oohs and aahs subsided, he began his answer in the name of God (which irritated the girls seated next me who muttered “(Ibrahim) does know we’re not infidels? ”). In what can only be described as a Richard Nixon move, Ibrahim started quoting a chapter in one his old books that criticizes the Brotherhood’s leadership for having an inadequate “party-based mentality” as opposed to the “country-based mentality” required to rule a country, and then moved on to detail the life story of Nelson Mandela, the history of South Africa, and the role the memoirs of Prophet Mohammed played in resolving the racial conflict in the then-torn nation – in a blatant attempt to put the audience to sleep. After the moderator, Mirazi, finally woke up and insisted he answer the actual question, Ibrahim grudgingly sighed and said: “I know Morsi is a good, well-meaning man… but he has not, yet, applied the proper Islamic solution to Egypt which will unite the people… unlike the great Mandela, who may not have been Muslim, but managed to learn, appreciate and apply true Islam. ”

Meanwhile, Youssef breezed through his questions. “What do you think of the opposition’s performance? ” asked a young man. “The opposition is trash. To put it lightly, they’re disgusting. They do nothing, ” answered Youssef, chuckling. That question was followed by a restless freshman who wondered if “(they) like, made Morsi leave, you know” who will fill the power vacuum. “Egypt has plenty of qualified options to take over after Morsi… but personally I don’t want Morsi to leave, let him finish his term, ” he answer, not unkindly, explaining that if Morsi did leave, and the people chose someone like ElBaradei to lead, the Islamists would riot.

It was not all compliments for Youssef: a veiled female student criticized him for being a bad influence on the youth, which is now “copying his sexual innuendos and raunchy jokes” to which he replied, “The show has an 18+ disclaimer and I don’t say anything you don’t hear every day on the streets. ” Later, a young man wearing a neat taqiyah (Islamic hat) with a trimmed beard, criticized Youssef for “attempting to correct a mistake with another mistake” by making fun of Islamists who make fun of him and liberals.

“I get to make fun of people, I am a political satirist” Youssef said, smiling, before getting heated. “I don’t make fun of someone’s name or appearance, I just point out their inconsistencies, ” he added, defensively. He went on to remind the speaker that he isn’t a cleric preaching things he doesn’t do, unlike the islamists, who gave themselves that responsibility, but are not living up to it. He angrily concluded that since “(he is) a clown, and a joke as they say, why are they stooping down to my level? ”

Just when the debate was coming to a close, and to Ibrahim’s great discomfort, he was asked if he would support a Copt as president. “According to our constitution, they can run, and if he wins, we must respect it, whether or not I support him is a personal matter, ” he answered briefly (visibly made uneasy by the mere prospect). But that’s not what he said in this televised interview when he was not outnumbered, as Youssef put it, in “a very hostile environment. ”

In his last attempt to win the crowd, Ibrahim stressed that only the holy Quran and authentic hadiths, not a party or the president, have authority over Muslims, which is rendered meaningless by the fact that Quran greatly stresses obedience to authority and some authentic hadiths forbid the act of rebellion in and of itself, even if the leader is corrupt. However, the trick gave the audience the false sense of security it craved, and earned him his perhaps only genuine round of applause.

Bassem Youssef gets the NMA treatment

This morning I wrote about the Bassem Youssef case — I have a couple of updates about it. One is so funny it deserved its own post — the above rendition of the case. I particularly love the conspiracy theorizing bit.

Also, from Moftasa, a worthwhile post on President Morsi's foreign policy advisor's move to distance the presidency from the lawsuits being filed left and right to defend Morsi — in some cases by third parties, but also by officials themselves. And that this may only be coming because the State Dept. is raising the Bassem Youssef issue.

"It's time for Bassem Youssef"

I was at a very nice Zamalek dinner party on Friday evening (thanks HS!). As the sumptuous meal (which included what I am reliably told are the best warrraq 3einab in town) reached its end, the guests began to agitate. It was 11pm. "It's time for Bassem Youssef!" exclaimed one of them.

Everyone got up from the dinner table and made their way to the coach to watch Egypt's answer to Jon Stewart launch the 2013 season for his "The Show Show", whose late 2012 performances have already gotten him into trouble with the authorities — he is being sued for showing insufficient respect to President Morsi in his, er, satire. To this pretty anti-Morsi crowd, Bassem Youssef has become an icon — as the NYT picked up upon in a recent piece. Youssef has already done some great satire on the Muslim Brotherhood's apparently meaningless Nahda program and occasionally stops the jokes to say some quite serious things, such as telling Salafi sheikhs that they are not religious figures in the eyes of many outside of their followers. (Indeed, most of them are clowns, albeit dangerous clowns.)

Abu Jamajem has some translated segments for those who don't speak Arabic, but follow this YouTube account for someone going through the trouble of subtitling every episode. If there's one place to get the pulse of the liberal view in Egypt, Bassem Youssef's show is it. I wonder how long it will be, though, when like Jon Stewart he starts taking occasional aim at his own side — after all political satire only keeps its edge when it accords equal ridicule to all who deserve it. Although of course one must note that even in the US there is no conservative Daily Show — only a fake conservative spinoff in the Colbert Report. The Salafis, like the Tea Party, are simply too naturally ridiculous to be intentionally funny.

State media clean-up?

Well, the heads of all the state newspapers as well as of the Egyptian Radio and TV Union were replaced last week. The extent of the commitment to change is unclear, however, given that most of them have been replaced by men (and they are all men, no change there...) who were also high-ranking figures within these institutions under the former regime. 

(I don't know enough about these people and their relationship to the Mubarak regime, if any of you readers have information, please do share!) 

At flagship daily newspaper Al Ahram, the new CEO is -- according to a source of mine there -- a disappointment in that he is "one student of the corrupted Ibrahim Nafie," (the infamous former CEO who destroyed the paper over his long reign and was replaced in 2008). But the new editor was actually the choice of reporters, who held a straw poll for the position earlier this month. 

Meanwhile, it is good to see Egyptian TV personalities continuing to be held to some account by YouTube shows like the Bassem Youssef Show and Monatov -- two online productions that are great sources of satire and commentary. In Episode 5, Youssef looks at some of the State media employees who during the revolution impersonated demonstrators on the air (!). In Episode 6, he shows how the same TV presenters (on the privately owned el Mehwar channel) who hosted an anonymous demonstrator who claimed to have been trained by American Jews and Qataris (and turned out to be a journalist), then claimed that they had not only supported the revolution but that "we started the revolution." These people have no shame. 

Mona also makes fun of some of the amazing contortions of pop singers and media figures who have had to quickly change their position on the revolution. 

I sat in on the filming of some of the Bassem Youssef show a while back, and did a radio story on him ("Egypt's Jon Stewart") you can hear here.



Egypt's Jon Stewart

Last week, thanks to Zeinobia, I discovered Bassem Youssef, a 37-year-old heart surgeon turned internet phenomenon and would-be scourge of all sycophants and fabricators on Egyptian TV. The segments on his YouTube channel are smart, slick, funny and obviously inspired by his idol, Jon Stewart. 

I had the pleasure of sitting in on the filming of some episodes last weekend. My profile of Youssef is now up at The Daily Beast. Here's a bit: 

"Of course we’re just doing 5 minutes,” he’s quick to point out. “Jon Stewart does half an hour. He has celebrities. He has his own cast of fake reporters and cameras. We do it at home using YouTube material. We’re kind of like the ghetto version of Jon Stewart.”

Youssef, who describes himself as "obsessed with TV," discovered Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert during one of his frequent trips to the United States. Back in Egypt, he watches their shows online.

Hosting an Egyptian incarnation of The Daily Show has been a day-dream for Youssef but before the revolution "there were all these red lines." Those red lines haven’t all been swept away. But in post-Mubarak Egypt—especially online—there’s a heady sense of freedom.

“What happened in the revolution was unprecedented,” says Youssef. “The extent and the magnitude of the hypocrisy and misleading information and misleading the public never happened before and will never happen again. That’s why we have a lot of controversy; we have a lot of material. It was a gold mine.”

You can read the whole piece here; it includes my translation of a few segments of the show. Otherwise, if you speak Arabic, check out all the episodes of the soon-to-be-very-famous Bassem Youssef Show over at his channel.