Magazine article The New Yorker

Hecklers for Hire

Magazine article The New Yorker

Hecklers for Hire

Article excerpt

Hecklers for Hire

In the United States, Bassem Youssef is usually called the Jon Stewart of Egypt. He no longer lives in Egypt, but, he said recently, "I guess the rest of the comparison holds true, because now Jon is off the air, and I'm off the air, too." Soon after the Tahrir Square uprising, in 2011, Youssef began hosting a satirical news show; it eventually earned the highest-ever ratings in the country. (In that respect, he was unlike Stewart.) When Mohammed Morsi was elected President, in 2012, Youssef made jokes about Morsi's party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The next year, an Army general, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, seized power, and Youssef made jokes about the military.

"Religious fundamentalists and military fundamentalists are basically the same," he said. "They both want to ignore the truth and replace it with propaganda." When Morsi was in power, Youssef was arrested for insulting the President, insulting Islam, and disturbing the peace. After six hours of questioning, he was let go with a warning. When Sisi took office, Youssef was forced to cancel his show, and decided to leave the country. He now lives in Los Angeles, with his wife and daughter. Last year, he hosted a show on Fusion, a Tocqueville-meets-"Borat" road trip across the U.S.; his memoir, "Revolution for Dummies," and a documentary about him, "Tickling Giants," come out this month. "In theory, I can go back to Egypt anytime," he said. "The only question is whether they would let me leave."

Youssef was in town for a performance at the French Institute, on Fifty-ninth Street. An hour before showtime, he and his agent, Maha Nagy, huddled with the theatre's house manager. "We've been told that a few of the ticket holders are planning to cause trouble," Nagy said. "We can point out who we think they are."

"We'll definitely have security screen everyone's bag," the manager said.

"It's not about that," Youssef said. "These people are paid hecklers."

"They are conservative Egyptians who live here, but they are hired by the Sisi regime to heckle," Nagy said. "It happens at every show."

"I can always spot them," Youssef said. "They're older than the rest of the crowd, and they all sit in one row wearing baggy suits and not laughing--"

"And then at some point one of them heckles, his friend films it with a cell phone, and they edit the video to make it seem that audiences are rejecting Bassem's message," Nagy said. …

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