March 7, 2013 2:48 pm

Egyptian satirist shrugs off death threats

An Egyptian walks past posters of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef outside a theatre in Cairo on January 22, 2013.©AFP

Posters promoting the show of Bassem Youssef, the satirist who is being prosecuted for insulting Egypt's president

Egyptians are famous around the Arab world for their jokes but, in public at least, those who cultivate a religious image have traditionally been treated with reverence rather than ridicule.

But a new comedy show, al-Bernameg, or The Programme, has become a runaway success with its biting satire of the country’s Islamist government.

The programme is the brainchild of its host Bassem Youssef, a US-educated heart surgeon who turned political satirist after Egypt’s revolution in 2011.

Inspired by Jon Stewart, the American television comedian, Mr Youssef first burst on to the scene just after the revolution with a series of sharply observed political parodies filmed in his laundry room and then posted on YouTube.

Now a television sensation, his penchant for jokes that expose hypocrisy, highlight political and moral U-turns and puncture bombastic claims has delighted liberals and drawn scathing criticism – as well as lawsuits – from Islamists, while commanding a huge viewership and attracting significant advertising.

In a recent episode, Mr Youssef lampooned the Islamist government’s condemnation of bank interest as usury, introducing a “sin meter” to judge the government’s economic policies. The gauge shudders and explodes when he mentions the loan Egypt is seeking from the International Monetary Fund – Islamist officials have labelled interest payments as “administrative costs”.

Sitting in his office above the renovated art deco theatre where he records the show, Mr Youssef tells the Financial Times that he sees his work as performing “a watchdog function”, to keep politicians “in check”.

His team of young researchers trawls through countless hours of broadcasts, from religious and other television channels, every week to cull material for his tightly scripted gags.

Egypt’s ineffective liberal opposition gets a share of his skewering, but as he has acknowledged, the Islamists are his main focus, because they are in power.

“Criticism comes with being in power,” he says. “They need to understand that the country and the people are bigger than the immediate followers in their group.”

In another recent episode, Mr Youssef poked fun at a favourite target: Mohamed Morsi, the elected Islamist president, who is also a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood group.

In one clip, Mr Morsi is shown on a state visit to Germany, lecturing an audience in a garbled mixture of English and Arabic, saying that a drunk goes to jail if he drives a car because “gas and alcohol don’t mix” and that therefore “freedom is responsibility”.

In depth

Egypt in transition

Protestors carry a large Egyptian flag through Tahrir Square on January 31, 2011 in Cairo

The dividing line between the nation’s secular and Islamist camps could not be starker

Mr Youssef quips that “politics and religion don’t mix” and the “liar goes to [hell]fire” even if he happens to be the president of a republic – “though not necessarily Egypt”.

In an earlier episode, Mr Youssef dredged up 2010 footage of the president delivering a heated lecture urging Muslims to “nurse” their children and grandchildren on the “hatred of the Zionists”, whom he described as “descendants of apes and pigs”. The remarks became front-page news in the US, embarrassing Cairo and drawing a rebuke from the White House.

Rasha Abdulla, a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, says the humorist’s rhetoric has helped dismantle the aura of sanctity that some Islamists try to project.

“It encourages people to question figures of authority and to think critically and realise that as citizens they have the right to evaluate what [leaders] are doing,” she says.

Mr Youssef’s barbed gags aimed at Mr Morsi and vocal ultraconservative television clerics, who regularly smear opposition figures as infidels or saboteurs, have earned him many enemies.

It is a guarantee that freedom of speech will not be oppressed if we continue to speak

- Bassem Youssef

He is the target of several legal complaints filed by private individuals accusing him of insulting the president or “showing contempt to religion”. In the most recent, 12 individuals filed a lawsuit claiming they were “psychologically affected” by what they called “nonsense, ridicule and slander addressed to the head of state”.

“There is now freedom of expression but at the same time people working in the media are being criticised as being against country and religion,” says Mr Youssef. “It is all very fluid and there are no guarantees this freedom will continue.”

Human rights groups say the number of journalists facing criminal defamation complaints in the first six months of Mr Morsi’s rule has soared.

Mr Youssef receives death threats over the internet and the telephone, but says he is uncertain if they are serious. However, security is tight at the recording studio where audiences have to file in through a metal detector.

“When people tell me they are afraid for me, I say how are we going to change the country if we are all afraid?” he says. “It is a guarantee that freedom of speech will not be oppressed if we continue to speak.”

Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, the head of the Brotherhood’s legal team concedes that Mr Youssef is funny but says he has “overstepped the line”. He denies, however, that the group is behind any of the lawsuits filed against the comedian.

“We don’t plan to sue him,” he says. “At least not for now.”

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