After months away from the small screen, TV satirist Bassem Youssef is back on the air but it is uncertain how long he’ll stay. After a four month absence (Youssef’s disappearance coincided with the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically-elected President by a military coup) he returned to the airwaves last Friday with a new episode of his weekly TV show Al Bernameg (The Programme). The episode sparked a new wave of controversy, reflecting the deepening divisions in Egyptian society.
Just 48 hours after the show was broadcast, the Public Prosecutor ordered an investigation into a legal complaint against Youssef, one of several filed by citizens angered by his mockery of the military chief. Others were upset by jibes he made at the former ruling Islamists. Youssef has been accused of “inciting chaos, insulting the military and being a threat to national security.”
Youssef is no stranger to controversy. He caused a stir when he mocked the now deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on his show, broadcast on the independent channel CBC. At the time, several lawsuits were filed against him by conservative Islamist lawyers who accused him of “insulting Islam and the President” and Youssef consequently faced a probe by the Public Prosecutor. The charges against him were dropped several months later however. President Morsi was careful to distance himself from the legal complaints filed against Youssef, insisting that he “recognised the right to freedom of speech.” While the lawsuits did little to harm Youssef (in fact, they actually contributed to boosting his popularity and improving the ratings of the show), they did damage the image of the ousted President, who was harshly criticised for “intimidating and muzzling the press.” A couple of months before his removal from office, Morsi was accused by critics of “following in the footsteps of authoritarian Hosni Mubarak and of using repressive tactics to silence dissent.”
Now, under the new military-backed interim government, Youssef finds himself in hot water again. This time the TV comedian, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, is in trouble for poking fun at leaked comments by the Defence Minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, suggesting that the General would “find partners in the local media willing to collaborate to polish the image of the military.” In recent months, Youssef has maintained an objective and neutral position vis a vis the events unfolding in Egypt. In his articles published in the privately-owned Al Shorouk daily, he has expressed concern over the brutal security crackdown to disperse two pro-Morsi sit ins in Cairo on August 14, in which hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters died. But he has also been careful to criticise the attacks on churches (often blamed on Islamists) following the coup.
Friday’s episode, which marked the start of a new season for the show, focused in part on the blind idolisation of al-Sisi by many Egyptians since the coup. The word coup was never once mentioned on the programme. In one scene, Youssef is seen putting his hand over the mouth of one of his assistants in an attempt to silence him as he utters the now-taboo word. In recent weeks, calls have grown louder for the General to run in the country’s next presidential election and a group of adoring fans has even begun collecting signatures for his candidacy.
The fact that Youssef is being prosecuted again after what many Egyptians consider was a “second revolution” signals that the June 30 revolt that ousted the Islamist President has failed to usher in a new era of greater press freedom .The lawsuits serve as a chilling reminder of the dangerous polarisation in the country, which some analysts warn may push it into civil war and chaos. While Youssef did take part in the June 30 protests that toppled Morsi, he has clearly decided not to take sides in this hostile environment. In an article published days before the show, he noted that many Egyptians advocate for free speech and democracy “as long as it is in their favor” but turn against you the minute your opinions differ from theirs. Aware that his episode had ruffled feathers, he sought to ease tensions with a message on Twitter that reminded his viewers, fans and critics alike, that at the end of the day, this is just “another episode in a TV show.”