Egypt's 'Daily Show'
Giglio, Mike, Newsweek
Byline: Mike Giglio
Bassem Youssef takes on the Salafis with American-style satire.
Two blocks from Tahrir Square, hidden amid the chaos and faded buildings of downtown Cairo, Bassem Youssef's studio projects the optimism of an earlier age. It's housed inside the Cinema Radio building, modeled after Radio City Music Hall and constructed in the 1930s, during the golden era of Egyptian film. After decades of disuse, the complex has recently been revived by Youssef, the Jon Stewart-styled host of a wildly popular satirical talk show, who is fast becoming Egypt's biggest new star. Youssef's likeness now towers over Cinema Radio's entrance on gigantic, Hollywood-esque billboards, a jarring sight for a man who was an anonymous heart surgeon just two years ago, and who says he still cringes self-consciously when he catches a glimpse of himself on TV.
Youssef moved into the studio for the start of his second season late last year. Called Al Bernameg, Arabic for "The Program," the weekly show--which sees Youssef dissecting the country's contentious politics with a Stewart-like mix of impishness and exasperation--started after the 2011 revolution as a YouTube series filmed in Youssef's living room. He had been planning to leave Egypt for a medical fellowship in Ohio, but the videos went viral and landed him a television deal. Al Bernameg is now must-see TV in Egypt, with crowds gathering to watch in cafes as if it were a soccer match.
Egypt, Youssef discovered, is fertile ground for political satire these days. "I think it was just the right moment, doing it the right way," he says of his show. "It all happened so fast."
Yet Youssef's success has also made him a target of Egypt's new political powers, who seem rattled by his popularity and brand of biting humor. Sitting in his office at the Cinema Radio building one recent afternoon, he described various attempts to ruin his reputation and possibly force him off the air: government supporters railing against him on their own TV shows, litigation accusing him of insulting the president--and even of blasphemy. While Youssef has not yet been officially charged with any crimes, he clearly feels the pressure, which may be the point. "Their tentacles are everywhere. They will come after you one way or another," he says. "It's not a joke."
Cinema Radio's proximity to Tahrir Square makes it a fitting venue for Youssef. With Islamists dominating the government, and gaining power in the TV news industry too, the show has become a hit with Egyptians unhappy with their growing influence. Youssef often comes across as a rare voice of reason through his satire. He has also developed into a champion for activists locked in a bitter struggle against President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. The smell of tear gas, from clashes between protesters and security forces in and around Tahrir, occasionally drifts into the studio.
Morsi and the Brotherhood provide Youssef and his writers with much of their comedic ammunition--as do the combative, religiously righteous Salafi politicians and media personalities now ubiquitous on Egypt's airwaves. "They make wonderful material," Youssef says. "Actually, we get fed up with the repeated good material from the Salafis. Even Stewart wouldn't go after Glenn Beck every day."
Many of the Salafi TV hosts make Beck look staid, calling their opponents everything from atheists to hermaphrodites. Khaled Abdullah, whose histrionics are notorious, was the first to broadcast the YouTube trailer insulting the Prophet Muhammad last fall, and many Egyptians blamed him for the ensuing riots. Youssef has lampooned the hardliners as hypocrites and dismissed them as "merchants of religion." (He is also fond of mocking former supporters of dictator Hosni Mubarak and opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei.)
But comedy took a dark turn in November when Morsi temporarily assumed autocratic powers that allowed him to push an Islamist-penned constitution through the drafting assembly. …