Members of the Egyptian press and media who make it their business to critique high officials know they’ve done a good job when they’re arrested and hauled in for questioning. In January 2013 an Islamist lawyer filed charges against Bassem Youssef, host of the satirical talk show al-Bernameg (The Program), for defaming President Mohamed Morsi, prompting the general prosecutor’s office to launch an investigation. Egypt’s thin-skinned leaders have long been the butt of (often raunchy) jokes circulated freely among citizens, but poking fun at the president and other sacred cows on television is a relatively new development, as are the plethora of independent satellite channels to which even the underprivileged have relatively easy access.

In early March, 12 plaintiffs upped the ante, accusing Youssef of insulting religion as well as Morsi, “[who represents] the prestige of the state before the whole world.”[1] Summoned before the prosecutor general on 31 March, Youssef was released on bail after several hours of questioning, pending further investigation. The “whole world” was soon in on the story, as fellow satirist Jon Stewart aired an 11-minute take-down of political hypocrisy, Egyptian style, on The Daily Show, juxtaposing the charges against Youssef with clips showing Morsi slurring Jews on the one hand and promising to protect Egyptians’ freedom of speech on the other.

Youssef’s career trajectory over the last two years, from cardiothoracic surgeon and pro-revolution YouTube dilettante to regionally renowned comic and international cause célèbre, says a lot about the “new Egypt.” Like Stewart, Youssef uses video clips harvested from local media to lampoon political and religious leaders. In Egypt, where talking heads dominate the air waves, debates are often won by endurance rather than reasoned arguments (whoever shouts the loudest and longest, wins). Amidst a horde of pompous pundits and lowbrow televangelists, Youssef’s more sophisticated approach to social issues stands out and is widely appreciated. 

Youssef’s “insults” reflect the disappointment of those who voted for Morsi. His video-illustrated commentaries highlight the president’s bumbling statesmanship as well as his government’s non-performance and obeisance to the Guidance Council of the Muslim Brotherhood, which many Egyptians believe are calling the country’s shots. The April 6 Youth Movement, which supported Morsi at the polls, gave an indication of its disenchantment in February 2013 by entering the president in an Internet contest (sponsored by Axe Cosmetics) to win a trip to space, suggesting that he might find people willing to put up with him on another planet. 

Given Egypt’s myriad ills, including a collapsing economy and his party’s plummeting popularity, prosecuting comedians may seem a waste of time, but Morsi does not appear overly concerned. While admitting last month that Egypt has economic problems, he remarked that “God is the ever-providing” and cited as proof “Egypt's [post-revolution] production of nine million tons of wheat in a cultivated area that formerly produced only five million tons.”[2] In the words of a young taxi driver, “[The Muslim Brothers] don’t need Bassem Youssef [to embarrass them]; they’re making fools of themselves.” 

In November 2012, Morsi had superseded constitutional law by firing the standing prosecutor general and appointing a new one‑‑the very prosecutor who pursued the case against Youssef. A month later, Egypt’s post-revolution constitution was hastily put together and passed via referendum. Drafted by an Islamist-dominated committee, it limits freedom of expression, with articles prohibiting “undermining or subjecting to prejudice all messengers and prophets” and likewise making defamation of the president a criminal offense. Several other figures in the media, including editors of independent dailies, have been placed under investigation for ignoring these contraventions, including Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the independent weekly Sawt al-Umma, following his October 2012 article entitled “You are a Liar, Morsi.”  

Bassem Youssef’s sharpest critique is reserved for religious television programming and the self-appointed spokesmen of Islam whose divisive rhetoric condemning “non-believers,” including Christians and Muslim secularists, has done Egypt grave harm by encouraging sectarian hostilities. In the 21 December 2012 episode of his show, Youssef addressed “the people who feel they hold the keys to heaven,” pointing out how the sheikhs and ulama (“learned men”) representing Islam on television “believe that any critique of them is an attack on religion” and how their behavior, namely “cursing and bullying others [who disagree with them]” is hypocritical.[3] Youssef often shows clips of his opponents’ response to his show, including one bearded elder declaring that “Bassem does not know how to clean himself in the bathroom.” Others accuse him of effeminacy (an insult in macho Egyptian culture) and his studio audience of being paid to attend.[4]

Charismatic and playful, elegant in his designer suits, Youssef is highly articulate but never pretentious; in short, he is everything that Morsi is not. Yet some Egyptians find him offensive. When Youssef’s 12 accusers claimed that they had “suffered massive harm [from his commentary], and were psychologically affected by [the] nonsense, ridicule, and slander addressed to the head of state,”[5] they weren’t kidding. Egypt’s presidents have long relied on their ability to inspire fear as a means of maintaining order. In a society steeped in patriarchal traditions, including obedience and deference to authority, Youssef’s irreverence is indeed subversive and seen by some as a sign of Egypt’s descent into chaos.  Egyptian authorities, both political and religious, are unaccustomed to being questioned, much less openly mocked. At a loss for how to react, they revert to type, undermining their position even more.

Youssef’s arrest has served to accelerate public disillusionment with Morsi and the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which are already facing severe challenges, evidenced by ongoing anti-government demonstrations and the raiding and burning of Brotherhood and FJP offices in a half dozen cities nationwide. Nor has the arrest cowed Youssef or his supporters, who only seem more defiant. A recent al-Bernameg episode featured stand-up comic Ali Kandil tackling an issue about which Egyptians have suffered in silence for at least a decade: the deafening amplification of the call to prayer and incendiary shout-fests that pass for Friday sermons.[6]

Aside from Morsi’s recent trips to Russia and Brazil to encourage investment, his administration seems content to ignore the public’s concern regarding his ability to reverse Egypt’s failing economy and spiraling unemployment. Despite opposition demands for a more proactive, representative government, Morsi appointed nine new cabinet members on 7 May, awarding several major portfolios to Muslim Brotherhood affiliates. Having effectively consolidated executive, legislative, and judicial powers, the ruling party seems to be telling its critics that it intends to have the last laugh. But to a public wary of diversionary measures like cabinet reshuffles, an oft-repeated tactic under Mubarak, that joke isn’t funny any more. 

In an attempt at crisis management after the Youssef fiasco, a presidential spokesperson announced that Morsi had dropped charges against some journalists that had been filed by the presidential legal affairs department, without going into detail.[7] But with the international media supporting Youssef, the damage had been done. Aside from spotlighting the government’s ineptitude and making Youssef wildly popular, the incident reawakened the wider public’s interest in Egypt’s struggle for freedom of expression, underlining the role of media personalities, journalists, artists, and bloggers who risk imprisonment for speaking their minds. Another significant outcome is that more Egyptians now know that an American named Jon Stewart has a television show just like Bassem Youssef’s, except for one thing: nobody can arrest him.

[1] “Comedian Bassem Youssef Charged with Defaming Morsy, Again,” Egypt Independent, 4 March  2013.

[2] “Morsy: ‘God is ever providing,’ Will Save the Economy,” Egypt Independent,, 5 April 2013.

[3] “Bassem Youssef: ‘To Us, You Aren’t Sheikhs or ʿUlama,’” Abu Jamajem, 29 December 2012,….

[4] Please see Stephen Kalin, “Here Are the Jokes that Got Bassem Youssef, the ‘Jon Stewart of Egypt,’ Arrested,” Quartz, 8 April 2013,

[5] “Comedian Bassem Youssef Charged with Defaming Morsy, Again,” Egypt Independent, 4 March  2013.

[6] See

[7] “Egypt’s President Morsi Withdraws Lawsuits Against Journalists,” Premium Times, 11 April 2013.