Bassem Youssef Bows Out

A couple months ago, the comedian hailed as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” sounded defiant:

But now, just days after former field marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was elected president, Youssef has canceled his envelope-pushing satirical news show:

The cancellation of Youssef’s wildly popular show El Bernameg (“The Program”) underscored Egypt’s constriction of freedom of expression since the military removed elected President Mohamed Morsi last year. Since Morsi’s ouster, authorities put an end to the freewheeling media atmosphere that arose in the wake of the 2011 uprising. The interim government shuttered Islamist media, jailed Egyptian and foreign journalists and banned unauthorized protests. The crackdown on political opponents initially targeted thousands of Morsi’s primarily Islamist supporters, but it’s now affected many who, like Youssef, were staunch critics of Morsi.

In a news conference Monday at the downtown Cairo theater where his show used to be recorded, Youssef did not explain exactly why the show would not return to the airwaves, but suggested government pressure was to blame. “The Program doesn’t have a space,” he said. “It’s not allowed.”

Max Fisher sees a hint of irony in that Youssef supported the coup that brought Sisi to power:

It is true that Youssef, during the difficult year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012 and 2013, was an important truth-teller whose jokes challenged the government’s abuses. He was briefly arrested for teasing the government on his TV show and faced real threats of serious prison time. This is the Youssef who is celebrated in the United States and elsewhere for his political satire, for challenging authoritarianism even when it put him at personal risk.

The Youssef who we do not typically see in the United States is the satirist who didn’t just challenge the Muslim Brotherhood government — but who went a step further, vilifying the regular Egyptians who supported the Islamist government, characterizing them as lesser citizens or internal enemies in a way that played into Egypt’s hate-filled political polarization, Sisi’s coup, and the disastrous consequences of both. Indeed, Youssef cheered on the military coup — as well as the bloodshed of anti-coup protesters, because unlike him they were Islamists

H.A. Hellyer also marks the show’s end:

Had Youssef been willing to make certain compromises, El-Bernameg could have gone on. He could have turned his show into one that lauded the now president-elect — certainly, that is what nearly all of the Egyptian media now does in some shape or form. He could have chosen to leave Egypt and broadcast in exile, or he could have gone to another channel — either another Arab one, or a European station.

But Youssef always made it clear that his program was an Egyptian program, and that it would be aired from Egypt on an Arab station — otherwise, it wouldn’t be aired. The last thing he wanted was to invite yet more attacks about the program being some sort of treasonous foreign entity. In discontinuing his show, Youssef and his team have sent a message: They refuse to compromise on their content to satisfy the powers that be. That is certainly unlike most of the Egyptian media — indeed, unlike media outlets the world over, including within the United States and Europe.