CAIRO, EGYPT. The jamming was my first introduction to Bassem Youssef and his hit satirical TV show “Al-Bernameg.” In March of 2014, as I sat in the common room of my downtown Cairo abode, the clear uninterrupted television signal that had been running the car-chase and action scenes of “The Fast and the Furious” that evening began to break and dissolve into the barely intelligible intro to Youssef’s show. The room let out a collective sigh at the botched transmission.
‘Whats wrong with the TV?’ I asked, more curious as to what the sigh was about than the shape the TV was in. ‘Nothing, the TV is fine. It’s the signal that’s being jammed,’ said one of the men watching the set. In my naivety I was stunned. Why was this show being jammed? Before I could ask, the young Cairean reached for his phone and loaded a video. ‘Do you want to see what it is? Do you want to see why it’s being jammed?’
In the wake of Egypt’s popular revolution and the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Bassem Youssef, a 40-year-old cardiac surgeon rocketed to unprecedented levels of notoriety through his B+ web show. His YouTube channel reached over 5 million views within the first few weeks of uploading episodes in which Youssef cast his witty and wistful eye over the weekly media report to make him Egypt’s first political satirist. It wasn’t long before the success of his low-budget web series saw him approached by Egyptian television network ONTV to run his own prime-time TV show simply titled “Al-Bernameg” or “The Show.” An offer readily accepted, the show built its massive succession off of its political lampooning of deposed President Mohammad Morsi and latterly the mocking of the celebrity culture that surrounds Egypt’s newly elected President, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
However, this success came at a price. After complaints to the station, allegations that his material was causing offence to Islam and claims that he was disrupting Egypt’s social fabric, Youssef was summoned before the public prosecutor but subsequently released on bail. It appeared that the halls of power in Cairo were not echoing with the laughter the rest of the country was. Youssef refused to be intimidated as he continued the shows which continued to win him millions of admires the world over.
One such admirer was American satirist Jon Stewart. Famous for his popular and somewhat controversial “Daily Show,” Stewart invited Yousseff to appear on his show in April of 2013 as a gesture of solidarity in the face of the mounting pressure Youssef was under. This was a gesture reciprocated by Youssef in a very timely, tongue-and-cheek manner by having Stewart brought on to the set bound, blindfolded and introduced to the audience as an apprehended American spy (you can watch the episode here). In the clip, Stewart praises Youssef for the work he’s doing in the face of mounting concerns for his safety and makes a resounding point to the host and the audience that:
“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime.”
In spite of being arrested and having his life threatened multiple times over the past three years, the show has continued to run. However, last month in a somewhat surprising press conference, Youssef revealed that the show would not be continuing. Though the conference alluded to tacit external pressures coming from the new el-Sisi regime, it cut short of citing the precise circumstances of the abrupt ending.
“We were broadcasting ‘Al-Bernameg’ in the face of all kinds of rumours, lawsuits, pressures, demonstrations near the studios where the show was shot, and jamming. We continued in spite of it all. But then it reached a stage where it couldn’t continue.”
It’s a gloomy prospect for the future of satire in el-Sisi’s Egypt. Perhaps now there’s no place for this comedy and the intimidation has reached such unprecedented levels that we may not see a show like “Al-Bernameg” returning for a long time. The only certainty we have is that it wasn’t for lack of ratings or for public appetite that this show has come to an untimely end.