The joke is on us, but we don’t want to get it.
By Kate Durham
The news that Bassem Youssef, ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart,’ is giving up his satire show Al-Bernameg makes me sad. Admittedly, I’ve never been a faithful viewer, only caught a few episodes of the TV program here and there. But his show, first aired in March 2011 as a Youtube channel before premiering on satellite TV that summer, seemed to promise an unheard-of era of free expression in the heady, optimistic days after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.
It was Mubarak’s government that jailed opposition editor Ibrahim Eissa for ‘endangering national security’ with an op-ed questioning the long-term health prospects of an 80-year-old president. And now, here was Youssef openly making fun of all things political. The 20-somethings in my office, many of whom joined the January 2011 protests, were ecstatic.
And I was impressed. Like many Americans, I grew up on a diet of satire. From the political satire comic strip Doonesbury to the skits of Saturday Night Live to animated TV show The Simpsons to mock talk show hosts like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, some of the most popular entertainment in the US lampoons politicians, celebrities and life in general. To me, it’s a sign of a healthy media environment, with satire combining humor, opinion and current events.
Now, Youssef is calling it quits after three seasons. In three years, he has had a host of lawsuits filed against him, first for “insulting” the president and Islam during the rule of President Mohamed Morsi, then for “insulting” the Armed Forces and the symbols of the country and government after Morsi’s outster. Al-Barnameg has had its signal jammed, and been suspended and subsequently cancelled by two different host channels. On June 2, Youssef said he would not seek a new host.
“The environment that we live in is not suitable for the show […] I’m tired of the worry, tired of moving from channel to channel, tired of worrying about the safety of me and my family,” he said in a press conference. “In plain terms, we’ve had it up to here.”
The easy villain to blame for the death of Al-Bernameg is the administration’s “chilling effect” on the media. With journalists being harassed by citizens in the street and being arrested for “aiding the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood,” the media climate is indeed pretty darn chilly.
But Youssef was not just battling governments sensitive to criticism. He was up against a population sensitive to criticism of its heroes ― no matter who they’re claiming as a hero.
The independent Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research, commonly known as Baseera, conducted two identical polls about Al-Barnameg in April 2013 and October 2013. The latter poll was held just days after Al-Bernameg‘s October 25 season opener, which had segments making fun of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi supporters and days before CBC cancelled the program on November 1. The key question asked respondents if they would approve of the program being discontinued. After the October 25 episode, 48% wanted the show to stay on the air, but 44% said they thought El-Bernameg should be cancelled ― the survey’s margin of error was about 3%, meaning an almost even split of opinion.
The pollsters break down the demographics of Youssef’s viewers, and they are predominantly young (18-29), urban and highly educated. Even still, of those who supported the idea of canceling Al-Bernameg, 37% fell in that 18-29 age group.
Baseera also found that the percentage of viewers overall who unconditionally liked the show had dropped to 35% in October, down from about 50% in April 2013; 13% said they liked the show but disliked the October 25 episode. The poll results listed some of the reasons given for not liking the program: “The program mocks people, the use of inappropriate language and sexual overtones, and the offense directed at the country’s symbols.”
The criticism continued after Al-Bernameg returned to air on February 7 with host MBC Misr. One Twitter user calling herself Rania wrote, “When the army of my country is disrespected, it means I am disrespected as a citizen. The anarchists and the people of Bassem [Youssef] did this and that’s why they are my enemy.”
In a nutshell, Bassem: They love what you do… until you do it to their guy.
Satire is funny but it can also be uncomfortable. With a ‘nothing is sacred’ attitude, it zooms in on life and magnifies the absurdity and sometimes hypocrisy of it. We laugh because we know that it’s true. And in laughing at the situation, we are in essence laughing at ourselves, because hey, this is our life.
The irony is, Egyptians love to laugh, and damm khafeef – ‘light blood,’ as a good sense of humor is called – is a revered attribute. And the humor is not always gentle. I’ve heard people mock Morsi, Mubarak, the government in general, life in general. People are still willing to make fun of the ‘other guy.’ But in this polarized space bristling with both national pride and opposition outrage, people are unwilling to laugh at themselves. And that makes me very sad. et