On the night of June 18, 2014, in a cartoonish scene, I stood alone in front of the Radio Theater in downtown Cairo, holding up a sign denouncing the cancellation of Bassem Youssef’s famous satire show Al-Bernameg.
Weeks before General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was sworn into office, on June 8, 2014, Al-Bernameg had faced repeated signal jams on the broadcast of its channel, MBC Misr. Angry viewers, or “honorable citizens,” began surrounding the theater when the episodes were being recorded and again while they aired. Rumors spread that Youssef and his crew were being personally threatened, which came as no surprise, as the father of Tarek al-Qazaz, the show’s producer, had recently been arrested over trumped-up charges.
The controversial Protest Law had been issued in November 2013, and the arrest of peaceful protestors had followed, including then 21-year-old Sanaa Seif, daughter of the late rights lawyer Ahmed Seif and Cairo University maths professor Laila Soueif.
Before my protest, I read the law thoroughly. I understood that to organize a protest I needed to “notify” the security apparatus but not wait for “approval” (this has since changed). After consulting with friends who were supportive of Youssef and Al-Bernameg, I submitted a request to the Qasr al-Nil Security Directorate, outlining where, when, why and how the protest would be organized and estimated attendee numbers.
They told me that if there was a reason to suspend the protest, I would be notified 24 hours before its scheduled time. They never called, so I printed hundreds of flyers to inform people of Youssef’s rights and of their constitutional right to voice their opinions (the new Constitution had been drafted and ratified at the beginning of that year). I also made several banners bearing statements opposed to Al-Bernameg being axed.
Of the hundreds of friends I invited to take part, of whom dozens overstated their excitement, only one showed up — two hours after the start time. Everyone just disappeared.
The stark contrast between our courage, confidence and hope during the glorious 18 days in 2011 and the vulnerability, desperation and depression we reached following the return of military rule had begun to leave us wondering: What exactly is our generation’s problem? At one moment we were ready to sacrifice our souls, eyes, limbs and futures for this country, and the next we abandoned the dream to each tread onward on our own path. Are we heroes or almost-heroes? Why did we rally, and why did we then disperse, either physically or metaphorically?
Sara Taksler, the filmmaker behind the recently released documentary Tickling Giants helped me attempt to answer this question. Her film pushed me to reflect on that period, between January 25 and the eve of Sisi’s inauguration, by following a story that in some ways reflects everything that has been happening Egypt, only it’s delivered sarcastically.
It’s a story about an acclaimed TV show and its presenter: a former heart surgeon by the name of Bassem Youssef.
The film’s poster, designed by cartoonist and writer Andeel, shows Youssef with a feather in his hand, tickling the foot of a giant monster about to crush him. The nearly two-hour film sees Youssef, in swift English with an endearing Egyptian accent, tell of his experience of political satire. He starts with his first program, The Bassem Youssef Show, which he launched on YouTube on March 8, 2011, similar in style to The Daily Show with John Stewart, his idol and mentor. He then moved to satellite TV with the rebranded Al-Bernameg, airing 153 episodes spanning four seasons and three years on OnTV, CBC or MBC, with a few summonses to the general prosecution and CBC suing him for LE100 million.
Youssef says he sees presenting satire as an extension of his chief profession as a medical surgeon who splits patients’ insides to fix their heart defects, except that in Al-Bernameg he exposed society’s insides without having to spill a drop of blood. Like many viewers in Egypt and the Arab world, I was aware of that fact. I used to think a lot more of Youssef: a politician, a fighter and a hero. A model to aspire to.
But through the film, Youssef tries to present himself as a person devoid of any notions of heroism he had not sought. He and Taksler tried hard to deliver a different image, to show Youssef as someone whose job is to “joke for the sake of joking,” someone lucky to emerge at an exceptional moment that earned him 50 million views per episode at a time when John Stewart himself wasn’t getting more than 2 million.
Youssef appears fragile, fearful and worried for himself, his family, his future and his crew. He does not try to come off as a fighter or reformist, or someone with a vision or agenda, or someone trying to capitalize on that exceptional moment and enjoy the success and fame it brought. He was bound by danger, wouldn’t cross the red line. Revolutionaries and visionaries paid no regard to red lines, always ready to rally before any obstacle and press ahead, regardless of the results and grave sacrifices. That wasn’t Youssef, and he has never posed as one of them.
Watching the film, this idea captured my attention and I started picking up the thread of what happened to us and to the revolution. If we were waiting for a Guevara or Gandhi or Mandela, I thought, Youssef was never like them and he never claimed to be.
Tickling Giants plunges us into the backstage of the show through a series of interviews with the crew: researchers, editors, scriptwriters, actors and producers. Most had found in Al-Bernameg an opportunity to develop careers in satirical media, and since the program closed many have gone on to work in other satirical programs, including very successful ones like Abla Fahita, Ayman Presents Ashraf and Saturday Night Live in Arabic. They have flooded the scene with pasteurized entertainment that operates within well-defined boundaries, steering viewers away from political controversy and direct criticism of the authorities by creating non-dissenting and non-educational content.
These authorities allowed Youssef and his crew to stand up hassle-free against the mammoth that was the Islamists throughout the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time the Islamists thought matters were in their favor, and we, in turn, thought that Youssef and his show were the Achilles’ heel of Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, the main factor behind his downfall in June 2013.
These were the authorities who played all revolutionary parties to achieve their own goals, protecting the system’s core and facilitating comical trials of its corrupt members, who were mostly declared innocent after evidence of their crimes was mysteriously destroyed.
At one point in Tickling Giants, Taksler uses a slowed-down sequence in reverse motion that ends at the pessimistic point of departure pre-2011 in what seems like an erasure of the last three years. As if the revolution never happened, or left no imprint. Immediately after, the camera shifts to Youssef’s daughter Nadia, smiling as she is about to take her first steps. Simply introducing images of a young generation stirs up a ton of emotions, of hope, consolation, and faith that change will inevitably come at the hands of those who are younger.
In Al-Bernameg, Youssef wielded the feather of political satire to tickle three giants: the old regime, the Islamists and the old regime in its new attire following June 30, 2013, which did not allow him to continue, buoyed by the sheer support Sisi enjoyed as the “bold, fearless hero” who couldn’t be defeated, especially not by a “clown.”
The problem with Youssef and Al Bernameg is that they did not try to tickle the most important giant of all, the giant that ignited the revolution. The giant who was looking for a leader but found no one. The giant who was looking for an inspiring guide, someone with a vision, while Al-Bernameg watched in silence. The giant who was played, slowly and maliciously, to no warning from Al-Bernameg. The giant whose memory others sought to erase, whose experience they sought to distort. The giant who found no one to remind him of his essential substance and put him back on his path.
Youssef did not take on that risk. He did not speak to the millions who were watching him, directing his satire and criticism at them.
I think this could have spawned so much.
Perhaps Youssef could have exploited the unusual circumstances that rendered his show an unparalleled platform, used political satire to service the real goals of the revolution, raised awareness and illuminated the path of revolutionaries gone astray. But he too seemed lost, unsure where or how to go, and with the first true threat to himself and his family, he broke away. It makes sense that he was keen on disassociating himself from “accusations of heroism” throughout Tickling Giants, saying that he was never a political leader.
Later on, exiled in the United States, Youssef created some new experiments, including Democracy Handbook with Bassem Youssef, which aired on YouTube last year during the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The show had a clear political agenda, focusing on demonstrating the faults in Trump’s campaign and program. He attacked Trump’s animosity towards minorities, his fear-mongering and attacks on Islam.
I was surprised: Why did Youssef decide to address Americans and leave Egyptian viewers when he was needed the most? Why didn’t he develop an informative program with a clear revolutionary message and air it to the millions who would be thrilled to listen to him again, over YouTube or Soundcloud or any communication tool that transcends continents, restrictions and harassment?
I don’t know, and I’m not judging him. He can chart his own career path. But I worry that more opportunities born amid unusual circumstances will be lost as we hesitate and allow them to pass us by, without taking advantage of them. I only hope that we — myself, Youssef and the generation that lived through the revolution — can reflect on our learning curve from time to time and ask ourselves: Are we fast learners? Did we learn from our mistakes? Did we readjust our path? Are we certain that we are investing in the best cause?
Tickling Giants is available in English on Netflix. An Arabic copy has not been released, and sadly it has not legally circulated among any Arab platforms or been sold on DVDs at bookstores or other entertainment outlets that have fortunately swarmed Egypt of late. It is targeting those who live outside Egypt, to the extent that, when I asked friends who are journalists and thinkers about issues relating to the film before writing this piece, I found that the majority of them had not heard of it, and those who did hadn’t yet seen it.
In a recent article, journalist Abdel Azim Hamad wrote that generations of police officers since the 1952 revolution have “sterilized” the public sphere, as opposed to eroding it in the sense of the late journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal — sterilization meaning suppressing any real space to think and express. As such, consecutive regimes dissolved any effective social organization inside syndicates, universities, mosques and churches, even reaching civil society organizations and the boards of private residential compounds.
For me, this explains everything: it explains why Youssef has failed, and why we have failed, at least for now. Our premature revolution was born from a sterile womb, and from that same womb Al-Bernameg was born unripe.
Sterilization necessitates a process of refertilization, in the mental, artistic, cultural, political, social and religious sense, and a restoration of the public sphere. This might take years and countless futile attempts, but ultimately a new generation of giants will be born. By then, I hope they will know who they are facing and which direction they are headed, because it’s then that they will accept to pay any price in return for freedom. And the rest will not leave them alone, but follow them to the finish line.
Translated by Heba El-Sherif