Bassem Youssef: Egypt's Jon Stewart 'Nibbles At The Walls'

In search of comedy in a complicated country, Youssef is back on the air.

A breakfast meeting with the Mada Masr staff in Cairo
A breakfast meeting with the Mada Masr staff in Cairo
Sarah Carr

CAIROPolitical satirist Bassem Youssef and the El Bernameg team are three episodes into the latest season of their comic news show, currently airing on satellite channel MBC Masr after being unceremoniously booted off CBC last November.

As a vegan in a nation of animal carcass enthusiasts, it warms my stony, plant-fuelled heart to report that Youssef shuns meat. He recently declared on Twitter that he has been a vegan for five months.

As we pursue a meandering conversation about El Bernameg, the minefield that is political comedy in Egypt, and his run-ins with middle-aged ladies at the Gezira Sporting Club, Youssef ploughs through the offerings in front of him with an impressive gusto. It is gastronomical carnage, and the falafel is the primary victim.

Asked about the Bernameg team and what it’s like working with them, Youssef likens his colleagues to a family, saying that he tries to employ a non-hierarchical “structure” in which he is like a “moderator,” only intervening when absolutely necessary. It results in “endless discussions,” Youssef says, something that sounds very familiar to us at Mada, where meetings can go on for centuries.

This horizontal structure renders him without “ego” because he subjects himself to their continual criticism — which is lucky, because since he hit the big time, Youssef has been the target of continual criticism. His show is broadcast amid an atmosphere of extreme and heated political polarization, with each side variously eulogizing him when he reflects their opinion and excoriating him when he doesn’t.

Compounding this is that even Youssef’s fans lash out when the show fails to meet their expectations and complain that “he’s not as angry and revolutionary as we are!”

Youssef’s answer to his angry fans? “At least I’m on your side. Maybe I'm not as loud and vicious as you are, but that’s maybe because I'm in mainstream television,” he says. “I have to be a bit more careful. This is a very unhealthy environment. At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment show. We never claimed that we’re freedom fighters.”

Youssef describes his approach as “nibbling at the wall of consciousness” rather than hurtling headfirst into it.

There is pressure to both deliver a message and be funny, all the while packaging the comedy in a way that Egypt’s socially diverse society can understand.

Some 35 million to 40 million people watch El Bernameg, Youssef estimates. The working man watching in a cafe may not be able to identify with references that Westernized Egyptians relate to. For example, Youssef can remember the time he made a joke involving Mohamed ElBaradei and Twitter during rehearsals, and the studio technicians looked blank and asked each other what he was going on about.

“Writing comedy for a big audience is extremely challenging,” he says. “Being in a zone that everyone understands and at the same time is funny is very difficult.”

From surgeon to funnyman

Youssef’s own background is well-known. A surgeon and Jon Stewart fan, he Egypt-ized The Daily Show format on YouTube before he was snapped up by television.

Youssef “isn't the funniest person in the room,” he says, but he compensates for that with hard work and organization, the legacy of his years in medicine. There is nonetheless a natural goofiness (“at heart I'm a nerd”) about him, and this coupled with his talent for doing ridiculous voices makes for great entertainment.

The first time he recorded a show in front of a live audience, Youssef froze when they roared with laughter. He and the team continue to judge the success of an episode by the laughs it gets during recording rather than by post-broadcast responses.

Reaction to the show is heavily shaped by the media, Youssef says. He recalls going to the Gezira Sporting Club — an exclusive club in the upscale Cairene district of Zamalek — the morning after one controversial episode, and people were shaking his hand.

But after 24 hours of media coverage, the tide has turned when he went back to the club and was instead getting the stink eye. So Youssef is highly critical of Egyptian media.

He is equally critical of the lack of diversity and imagination on Egyptian television, whose programming largely consists of chat shows and anchors receiving phone-ins. Very few programs veer away from this model with, say, documentary reports or other formats.

“My problem with Egyptian media is that you don’t have Egyptian TV,” he says. “You have Egyptian radio. If you close your eyes totally and you follow the mainstream TV, you’ll not miss anything. There is nothing visually stimulating about it. Even when you do phone calls on CNN, there are reports and graphics and so on. For the past 10 years, Egyptian television has been spending all its money on radio.”

But the media, despite the narrowness of its artistic vision, has been used to great effect to (mis)inform and shape public opinion, particularly during the chaotic days after the removal of former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that followed, he says.

“In September and October, the anger was horrible,” Youssef says, recounting an encounter with a lady at the Gezira Sporting Club (again) whose comic absurdity takes a considerable edge off the tragedy of it all.

Youssef was doing pull-ups at the running track one morning when out of nowhere a formidable middle-aged woman doing laps came speed-walking past.

“ ‘You traitor! You foreign agent!’ ” he recalls her saying, imitating her in a rapid high-pitched shriek.

“The first thing I thought was, where is this sound coming from? The next time she speed-walked past it was, ‘How much did Obama give you?’ She had 400 meters to think of something to say each time. A girl objected and the woman screamed, ‘Is she Muslim Brotherhood or what?’ ”

“I’m in a position that I can’t really answer back. I’m being put in a position that I can’t really answer anyone because it will be taken against me,” Youssef says.

There was a more cheerful incident at the Gezira Club when a woman approached Youssef and said, “I’m a fan of yours despite the fact that you make fun of my son.”

The woman turned out to be the mother of Tamer Hagras, an actor Youssef had mocked because of his deep orange, George Hamilton-type tan.

“The funny thing,” Youssef remembers, “is that she was wearing orange.”

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!