Can a joke harm national security? Egyptian TV’s answer to Jon Stewart investigated

Top prosecutor targets satirist Bassem Youssef after show pokes fun at military rule’s support

Cairo

He has borne exhaustive comparisons to Jon Stewart, the American satirist whose nightly show regularly pokes fun at the great and the good in Washington. But for Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian comedian who became a TV sensation following the fall of Hosni Mubarak, satire is a joke where the punch-line can end in jail.

Just days after kicking off the new series of his wildly popular show, Al Bernameg – or The Programme – Egypt’s top prosecutor ordered an investigation into whether Mr Youssef had harmed national security by mocking supporters of the country’s military.

Mr Youssef, 39, is the Middle East’s most famous satirist – having shot to prominence through homemade YouTube skits. He is now watched by 30 million viewers.

But this week’s announcement highlights the precariousness of the current political climate.

Public criticism of the military is extremely muted. The media has faithfully trumpeted the government’s so-called “War on Terror”, while many mainstream politicians have failed to question the dragnet detentions of more than 2,000 Islamists and other dissidents.

In this deeply divided society, Mr Youssef’s show has become one of the only high profile checks on the military-backed government.

“The Egyptian media have been totally taking the side of the military,” said Diaa Adel, a 23-year-old producer. “On the other hand, channels like Al Jazeera have taken the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, and there isn’t one programme in between.

“The only person talking about the perspective from my side is Bassem Youssef.”

Egyptian leaders have often found their sense of humour wanting. It was reported that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the 1960s demagogue, hired officials to take note of the anti-authoritarian tea-room jokes doing the rounds during his rule.

Given the political shifts which have taken place since July, there had been fevered speculation about how Mr Youssef would handle his new series.

It was the military which ousted Mr Morsi on the back of a summer revolt, while army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – whose face can now be found adorning novelty chocolates and wrist watches – is the object of intense speculation about a run for the Presidency.

Egypt’s army, a conscript force that enjoys widespread popularity, has historically been a red line for critical journalists.

So a looming question mark was hanging over whether Mr Youssef – who had mercilessly skewered Mr Morsi – would dare to tackle Egypt’s most glaring satirical target: General al-Sisi himself. In the end, he trod his thread-like tightrope as best he could, ridiculing the current wave of Sisi-mania without a direct reference to al-Sisi in person.   

Although finding time for a few jabs at political Islam, Youssef also alluded to the threats posed by the growing tide of nationalism.

“I am not with hypocrisy, deification of individuals and the creation of pharaohs,” he said in a sombre moment at the end of the show. “We are afraid that fascism in the name of religion will be replaces by fascism in the name of nationalism.”

Not everybody was amused. Mr Youssef’s own channel released a statement saying the company was “keen on not using phrases and innuendos that may lead to mocking national sentiment”.9

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst- Desktop Support, Helpdesk, ITIL

£20000 - £27000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Service Desk Analyst - (Active Directory, Support, London)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst - (Active Di...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, VBA)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

Day In a Page

All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

Radio 1’s new top ten

The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

Florence Knight's perfect picnic

Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

Mark Hix's summery soups

Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

Tim Sherwood column

I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition