After much anticipation, Bassem Youssef’s “Al-Bernameg” (The Program), came back on February 7, with a new slug: Careful, stopping is recurrent. This is typically the warning you see at the back of a school bus that is bound to stop intermittently, but in Youssef’s case, it’s a pun on the possibility of censorship on the uncompromised content of the show.
In November, CBC and QSoft, the company that produces the program, ended their contractual agreement after Youssef’s episode was banned. This would have been Youssef’s second episode after a long silence that followed the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster from power, who were the main subject of satire on the show.
With the military being a de-facto player in politics today, little space has been left for criticism, and journalists and media outlets are increasingly facing restrictions. Youssef’s comeback last November was a carefully crafted show, not short of military critique, but also not short of Brotherhood critique, even though they had already been forcefully deposed by then. Even then, the show wasn’t spared the controversy of being stopped. CBC’s management inaugurated its contention with Youssef’s show by publicly apologizing for its sexual insinuations. Not so long after, the channel decided not to air the second episode, to the dismay of his avid followers.
CBC would quickly become one of the main subjects of Youssef’s satire in his comeback — alongside Egypt’s contested media practice. The episode, aired this time on MBC Misr, was full-on general satire of the condition of censorship Youssef and others face. It was mocked prevalent and flawed media practices that do more subservience than relaying truths. The show started with Youssef hesitantly presenting the script of the new season to the channel, as the disgruntled channel manager tries to convince him to shift to something else – presenting a show on women, for example, and essentially “eating bread”, an Arabic expression denoting the need to toe the line in order to survive.
“I don’t like dialectics. I don’t like dialectics!” is the channel’s response, which resonates with a broader headline on today’s Egypt, where little criticism to the ruling authority is tolerated.
Youssef moves on to what he is discouraged from doing, using humor to stage a desperate attempt to stay away from politics and fail miserably. Why? Because if you want to have a show on food, food shows today are full of (field marshal, military commander and soon to be presidential candidate Abdel Fattah al-) Sisi cakes. And if you want to have a show about clothing, shows today are talking about Sisi trousers and Sisi shirts. Even music shows, international ones, let alone local ones, are full of references to Sisi, such as the little known Spanish song “si, si, signor”.
“In Spanish, si means yes. So the song means, yes, Yes, YES,” Youssef and his three musketeers said excitedly before realizing that they are trapped in Sisi mania, and there is nothing else to make fun of. Eventually, Youssef submissively tells the audience that “siyasa”, the Arabic word for politics, shares the same syllables of the word Sisi, a reminder to stay away from the field marshal and the potential would-be president in the days to come.
The show was received with a lot of enthusiasm from activists still looking to carve out a space for politics that is not pro-Muslim Brotherhood and not pro-military. Activist Gigi Ibrahim wrote on her Twitter account, “Everyone needs a little Bassem Youssef in their life. We just needed a good laugh. Bassem delivered tonight.” Similarly, activist Wael Iskandar wrote, “Bassem Youssef: truly worthy of our respect.”
But Youssef naturally doesn’t only have a cast of fans, but also one of haters. A Twitter account named Layal, posted a photoshopped image of Youssef into a clown, with a message that reads, “We won’t let that clown Bassem Youssef intoxicate our minds. You are an agent and we won’t be fooled by your likes one more time.” Rania, another Twitter user, wrote dismissively, “When the army of my country is disrespected, it means I am disrespected as a citizen. The anarchists and the people of Bassem [Youssef] did this and that’s why they are my enemy.”
To which, Youssef responds in his interview published on February 2 by the German Deutshe Welle by saying, “It’s important that people hear a different view. People can’t keep hearing the same thing all the time. That’s why there has to be some political mobility. I understand there is some fear… it’s hard to talk with logic then. But then imagine humor!”
And for the audiences that still expect him, Youssef thinks he needs to continue. In the comeback episode, he considers leaving, but his three musketeers remind him about the army waiting outside for him. A terrified Youssef asked, “an army?” shortly before his team reassure him and explain that it was “an army of people”, of fans, expecting him.