When watching Bassem Youssef skillfully deliver satiric political commentary on “El-Bernameg” (The Program), it is impossible not to be almost startled by the resemblance to Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show”. The similar set and the fact that, let’s be honest, they kind of look the same, doesn’t help. Youssef’s recent legal trouble in Egypt – namely being charged with “insulting the president and Islam” – has received significant coverage. The back-story is worth getting caught up on, especially if you’re a fan of Jon Stewart, who had Youssef on his show last June, and also dedicated an impressively long portion of his show last Monday to protest the charges against his “brother” Bassem. The charges were dropped on Saturday, but beyond a minor diplomatic skirmish, this debacle has brought renewed attention – nationally and internationally – to the clumsy, yet alarming behaviour of President Mohammed Morsi, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptians tend to be known for two things (no not that): a good sense of humor, and a seemingly insatiable desire to talk politics. Given this, it is little surprise Youssef’s show has proven so popular. As he put it to Stewart in June: “We broke ground in television programming because now people say, ‘He actually says what we want to say’.” It is also hardly surprising that Morsi feels threatened by the popular stylings of a political satirist, despite Stewart’s insistence that he should not. The great discomfort felt by the presidency toward the same powerful civil society that enabled his ascent, not to mention the very real social and economic problems he inherited, becomes increasingly evident with each clumsy, counterintuitive step he takes. For Egyptians, this latest high-profile move is just another misstep in a long string of bad decisions.
However, Youssef being charged does bring to light a larger problem that has reemerged, with a vengeance, in Morsi’s Egypt: Freedom of the press. Depending on their political leanings, Egyptians viewed Mubarak’s influence over the media on a broad spectrum, ranging from almost complete censorship to virtual freedom. As a colleague put it to me once: “Mubarak allowed the press to be relatively free, he knew the people needed an outlet to voice discontent, and this is the venue he allowed.” Whether this was the case, or Mubarak was simply more skilled at silencing dissent, is perhaps no longer relevant. However what has become apparent is the determination of the new leadership to control content.
In the 2011/2012 Reporters Without Borders (RSF) global press freedom index, Egypt fell 39 places from 127 to 166. This was partially the result of repression that occurred during the period of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rule prior to Morsi’s election; however things seem to have only worsened since then. As prominent rights lawyer Gamal Eid articulated recently “there have been four times as many lawsuits for “insulting the president” in Morsi’s first 200 days in office than during the entire 30 years that Mubarak ruled.”
As he pointed out last week, for eight years Stewart’s career revolved around mocking the president, and just like George W., Morsi’s material pretty much writes itself. So far, his threats seem only to be galvanizing his critics to become even louder. Let us just hope that in a few years, Egypt has the opportunity to “make fun of a president they actually like.”