Egypt’s Jon Stewart knows why authoritarian regimes fear satire

A new documentary chronicles the rapid rise of Bassem Youssef’s comedy career — and the political fallout that followed.

Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who is known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 2, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amr Nabil
Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, who is known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” speaks during a press conference in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 2, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

If you have any concerns about America slippery-sloping its way from a free speech haven to an authoritarian, alternative-fact-filled nightmare-scape where Samantha Bee and her ilk can be funneled into the prison industrial complex for mocking the president, then you’re going to want to talk to Bassem Youssef.

Youssef is a heart-surgeon-turned-satirist. After the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Youssef, a diehard fan of The Daily Show, created and starred in his own political comedy series. First came The B+ Show, which he shot in his laundry room and posted on YouTube, and then Al-Bernameg (“The Show”), a live show that, at its peak, was watched by 40 million people — half of Egypt’s population. But this victory — of free speech in a nation that had long banned any vocal criticism of its leadership, of comedy in the face of a humorless regime — was relatively short-lived: Youssef was arrested on charges of “insulting Islam.” (He was questioned and then released on bail.) His show was canceled, revived, then canceled again for good. Youssef was forced to leave the country with his wife and daughter, and now resides in the United States.

Sara Taksler, a Daily Show producer, didn’t realize exactly what she’d be documenting back in 2011, when Youssef visited the Daily Show set in anticipation of launching his live show. She found his trajectory from heart surgeon to “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” an intriguing one and figured he would make for a compelling documentary subject.

The resulting film, Tickling Giants (which you can download now), wound up capturing not just the astonishing, rapid rise of Youssef’s comedy career but the political and personal fallout that followed. As Taksler has said, the narrative is “a Cinderella story gone awry”: Youssef wanted to do what Jon Stewart did, succeeded beyond his own wildest expectations by becoming one of the most famous comedians on the face of the Earth, and then had the floor kicked out from under his life.

Taskler and Youssef each spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about the rise and fall of Al-Bernameg, the making of Tickling Giants, and what Americans can learn from Youssef’s experience.

Editor’s note: These interviews were conducted separately and have been condensed and combined below for your reading ease.

Bassem, what turned you on to The Daily Show? At what point did you think, “This heart surgeon thing is great and all, but what I really want to do is political satire”?

BY: It was 2007. I stayed in America for two years, from 2007 to 2009, working for a medical company. It took me a couple of years to understand what the hell they were saying because I had to educate myself about the politics of the U.S. And this is when I thought, I would love to do something like that. But even in my dreams, I had to limit myself to social commentary. Easy stuff. Stuff that doesn’t really touch the president or politics.

Help an American understand exactly how dangerous it is for someone in Egypt to attempt the kind of satire that we see on not just The Daily Show but so many others like it here in the U.S.

BY: It’s very difficult in Egypt. As a matter of fact, it’s dangerous for people to speak up. In the past three weeks, about 40 websites were shut down in Egypt. It’s a luxury that people cannot afford there. Even people who were political [when my show was on the air], they’re doing social commentary now.

So this dream of yours, as you say, seems totally unfathomable until 2011, when you start your show. You shoot these videos in your laundry room and post them on YouTube. What were your expectations at the time?

BY: The revolution happened in 2011 and then I started [my show]. I thought maybe I’d get 10,000 views. And in a couple of weeks we had 5 million. People were stopping me in the streets, taking pictures with me. It was absolutely amazing.

Jon Stewart talks to the studio audience in Cairo, Egypt, Friday June 21, 2013, on Egypt’s top satirical TV program modeled after his own program “The Daily Show”. Stewart was introduced by Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef, left, wearing a black hood as a captured spy for the program, and the hood was dramatically lifted off before continuing the show. CREDIT: AP Photo / CBC
Jon Stewart talks to the studio audience in Cairo, Egypt, Friday June 21, 2013, on Egypt’s top satirical TV program modeled after his own program “The Daily Show”. Stewart was introduced by Egyptian TV host Bassem Youssef, left, wearing a black hood as a captured spy for the program, and the hood was dramatically lifted off before continuing the show. CREDIT: AP Photo / CBC

Were you surprised that your show could catch on the way that it did, even in a country where there wasn’t really a precedent for what you were doing?

BY: I think it came organically because, at the end of the day, it is a need for everybody to speak up — about politics, about the government. So it was widespread because there was a hunger for this. That’s why it exploded.

When did you two first meet? During what stage of Bassem’s career?

BY: I went to The Daily Show to understand how they are doing a live show. We didn’t have that experience in the Arab world, so we had to go to America to understand.

ST: When I met him, he did not yet have a show in front of a live audience, but he was already working on his show. And the revolution had already begun. He and a few team members came to The Daily Show to observe what we do. The idea was for them to learn some of the ways we find stories and produce them — creative and technical things. I was hanging out with Bassem and his team, and I was pretty blown away by how they were doing the same sort of thing we were doing, but the stakes were so much higher for them.

“At the end of the day, it is a need for everybody to speak up — about politics, about the government. So it was widespread because there was a hunger for this.”

BY: Sara met me and said she found it interesting that a guy from the Middle East who is a heart surgeon is doing a show. She thought, “What would it be like if Jon Stewart were a heart surgeon?” And that I [worked with] a very diverse group of people, that half of my staff was women.

ST: It was really interesting that two of the four producers were women. I was curious what it would be like to be my counterpart in Egypt. My own ignorance made me really curious about what it’s like being a female working in comedy there, and it turned out it was such a non-event. it wasn’t part of the story to tell. You can see by watching, there are tons of women in the office — more women than men. It was no big deal to them.

BY: [During my Daily Show visit], she asked if she could do a documentary about me. I said, “Of course, why not?” Sara was working at The Daily Show, so I felt like, a friend of Jon Stewart’s is a friend of mine.

ST: It was shockingly easy. I was nervous to ask, and I was debating all day if I should ask. I decided I just didn’t want the chance to pass me by. So before the day ended, I went to Bassem and asked if I could make the documentary, and he said sure. For him, it was flattering to be asked — and he didn’t know that it was going to become such a huge story. And I of course had no clue that there would be so many twists and turns. I just thought it was interesting that this heart surgeon was making a comedy show.

What happened next? Did you just get started immediately?

ST: I got permission from Bassem, and I chickened out. I was scared to do it. The U.S. government was discouraging non-essential travel to Egypt. And I didn’t have to do this; I wanted to do this. I sat on it for a while. And this sounds cheesy, but I was reading Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, and she says, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” And my first thought was: I’d go to Egypt. And at the time, Bassem was starting to be called in for questioning about his jokes on politics and religion. And I thought: This story is important and needs to be told. So I reached out to Bassem again and hired a local crew and started.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 photo, Supporters of Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi burn a poster with a photo of Bassem Youssef and Arabic that reads, “not Egypt, you are degrading to the media, fifth column,” during a protest in Cairo, Egypt. Several complaints were filed against Youssef, after he mocked the pro-military fervor gripping Egypt in his first program of the season last week. Youssef also took jabs at the powerful El-Sissi, lionized in the local media after leading a July 3 overthrow that ousted the Islamist president. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
In this Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013 photo, Supporters of Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi burn a poster with a photo of Bassem Youssef and Arabic that reads, “not Egypt, you are degrading to the media, fifth column,” during a protest in Cairo, Egypt. Several complaints were filed against Youssef, after he mocked the pro-military fervor gripping Egypt in his first program of the season last week. Youssef also took jabs at the powerful El-Sissi, lionized in the local media after leading a July 3 overthrow that ousted the Islamist president. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Bassem, you were arrested on charges of “belittling” President Mohamed Morsi and “insulting Islam.” The arrest came after you did a bit on your show making fun of an absurd, oversized hat that Morsi wore. And then you wore the giant hat to the police station. Were you hesitant at all about that choice? Or did it just seem like the obvious thing to do?

BY: I thought, if they’re going to go for the joker, the joker is what you’re going to get. You don’t mess with the joker. In my mind, I was punishing the regime for being too petty.

Sara, after being discouraged by the U.S. government to travel to Egypt, were you surprised by how it felt to actually be there while filming? Did you feel like you were in a dangerous place?

ST: For the most part, I felt very comfortable in Egypt. I was spending 90 percent of my time in a comedy show office, so it wasn’t particularly foreign to me. If anything, it was fun to see how similar it was, and how similar the people are. And they purposely structured their show to be like The Daily Show, so it was like bizarro-world: You know everything but you don’t know everything about your surroundings. So for the most part, it was really great. There were some things that were harder to do, particularly filming in public. People were not comfortable taking pictures of or filming everything the way people are in New York City. So that proved a challenge. We ended up filming a lot of our outdoor footage from a moving car, because it just made things safer and easier. We had a crew member who was beaten up to get his footage when he was filming one of the watch parties for the show, and we tried to be as cautious as we could.

At its height, Bassem’s show was watched by half the country and much of the Middle East. He’s referred to, often, as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” and understandably so, but in terms of cultural impact that seems like an inadequate analogy. Is there a celebrity of equivalent scale and influence in the United States?

ST: I think within a month of starting on YouTube, it was already tremendously popular. Before he even had the chance to start the live TV show, he was a megastar… I don’t think that there’s anything equivalent in our culture. Certainly in comedy, there’s nothing comparable. Maybe Johnny Carson in his prime. I mean, he got 30 to 40 million viewers per episode in a country of 80 million people. Jon Stewart had roughly 2 million per episode, and we think of that as tremendously influential and successful. So there’s really just no frame of reference. Bassem says it’s like the Super Bowl.

It sounds a little Oprah-like, if we had to pick someone.

ST: Please say that I said he’s exactly like Oprah.

You might think that a government with an army at its disposal wouldn’t feel threatened by a comedy show, but clearly this was not the case in Egypt. Bassem, why do you think your show was seen as such a problem by the government that you became a target, and the series had to be taken off the air?

BY: Because most regimes surround themselves by fake respect and fake fear. So when you make fun of them, you take the only weapon they have. People look at them as humans that could be made fun of, instead of infallible leaders.

Sara, how did documenting Bassem’s experience — which ultimately ends with him, really, in exile, unable to continue his show in his home country — affect how you feel about doing political satire in the U.S.?

The most immediate reaction was to feel grateful, not only that we can truly do political satire in the U.S but also that there are a lot of voices who are satirists. Because part of what made Bassem less safe is that he was the only voice, and he either existed or he didn’t. He was the only one actively on the air doing this thing. Part of what makes satire in the U.S. is there are a bunch of people doing this… You can’t get rid of one person doing political comedy in America and wipe out the whole thing. It would take a lot more work. So I was really appreciative of that. And it also made me, personally, more concerned in this election, as President Trump started to criticize Saturday Night Live and worry about jokes being made. It made me more aware that we would need to actively protect free speech.

“Most regimes surround themselves by fake respect and fake fear. So when you make fun of them, you take the only weapon they have.”

Do you think Trump is the most humorless U.S. president in your lifetime?

ST: I wouldn’t describe Trump as humorless. I think he’s intentionally funny a lot of times. I think he knows how to work a crowd and captivate an audience. But he can’t seem to take being the butt of a joke, and that rubs him the wrong way more than it should… Not everyone knows how to be made fun of, even if they’re someone who is the most famous person in the country.

What stood out to you about how the public reacted Bassem’s live show, aside from just the scale of its popularity?

ST: Satire has long been a part of the culture there, but being on TV was a new thing… The whole country had to learn what that would mean. There was a shock value in saying anything about the government, religion, or the president. People had to learn and then decide for themselves what they were okay with , in terms of not just the jokes but the language used, the context in which people were made fun of. Was it okay to say something that might be sexual? That might take on religion? To say something about an individual? And the big thing was, once power changed hands between Morsi and Sisi, people had to determine if they could still be okay being on the side of the person who was being made fun of.

Sara, how did you figure out the ending of Tickling Giants? The show getting canceled, returning, and then getting canceled again must have left you, dramatically, in a tricky spot. Did you know what you wanted the tone to be, and did that change as filming went on?

Bassem Youssef attends the TIME 100 Gala celebrating the “100 Most Influential People in the World” at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday April 23, 2013 in New York. CREDIT: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
Bassem Youssef attends the TIME 100 Gala celebrating the “100 Most Influential People in the World” at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Tuesday April 23, 2013 in New York. CREDIT: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

ST: The first time the show was canceled I thought: Oh no, not only am I upset that the show is canceled, but I don’t have an ending. I only have a beginning and a middle. And as they go on and work and decide to come back for a new season, I thought our ending would be this triumphant moment… When the show ultimately was canceled for real, it was really mixed for me. On a personal level, I thought Bassem might be better off for his own personal health not having to do the show. But as a someone who was a huge fan of what they were doing, I was incredibly disappointed that he couldn’t do the show. In the edit, it was deciding where to end it — when he was forced to leave the country, that felt too important not to include, and that helped us determine our story. It wound up being that the first act was about setting up this fight for free expression; the second act became the conflict between Bassem and external forces — protestors, the government, the network — and the last third is about his internal conflict, how hard it is to tell jokes when people really don’t want you to.

What have the screenings been like?

BY: I was invited to the premiere of the documentary like anyone else, and I saw it for the first time, it was very emotional. It was emotional to the point that I couldn’t actually watch it again. So when I’m invited to a screening, I stay outside until they’re done, I go to the Q&A as if I’ve watched it.

ST: I’m calling the screenings “Meet a Muslim at the Movies,” for a lot of Americans who haven’t had a chance to get to know someone who is Muslim. And in the time the movie happened to come out, Bassem is exactly the kind of Muslim we’re talking about when we talk about Muslim bans: He had to leave his country to do his job. The people on his staff are just regular people.

Do you get the sense people leave the theater feeling depressed, optimistic, or somewhere in between?

BY: It has both. It’s someone who did something out of nothing, and then it’s all taken away. And it gives a message that, it is possible. The story ends on — everything was taken away, but there’s hope that this was done so maybe it could be done again.

ST: In screenings, we’d see younger audience members found this ending hopeful and wanted a hopeful ending. And older audience members found this ending depressing and they wanted it to be depressing, because they thought that was more accurate… We had a big debate in the edit about how we should end it, because I wanted to show hope and a legacy and the idea that, even though Bassem is off the air, he’s passed the torch and there are people who still understand that this can happen and should happen again in terms of free speech. But things are not good right now, and you don’t want to pretend it was hunky-dory when it’s not. Something that was really nice is, one of the staff members from Bassem’s show who I’ve become friends with left me a message the other day, saying her favorite thing about this is that there’s a document that this happened. It can’t just be written out of history.

What do you make of the fears among journalists — sometimes in jest, but I think sometimes in all seriousness — that First Amendment rights will be stripped away under Trump? Bassem, as someone who is intimately familiar with life under authoritarian rule, how close do you think America is to that brave new reality?

BY: You still have a long way to catch up. But the thing is, I think what makes it worse is that you’re missing the checks and balances because the Republicans control the House and the Senate, which makes it very difficult to stand against Trump on a day-to-day basis. This is why people are more edgy.

ST: I don’t think we can discount the United States’ long history of free speech. A really interesting thing of this past year has been that people, regardless of their politics, are becoming aware of how fragile that right is. Free speech doesn’t have to exist forever if we don’t make sure it sticks around. Something that I never would have expected that’s been a really interesting outcome of the screenings, a lot of people on the right — conservatives and libertarians — have gone out on a limb and supported the story. The Koch network and someone from Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign have supported the movie and loved it. And I think it’s because liberals and conservatives both feel like they’re under attack for different reasons. Both sides really care about it, and I think that’s really promising. Both sides realize we’re not doing a good job, at this exact moment, of expressing how valuable free speech is. So I don’t think people should be panicking. Now is the time to speak up about it.