Political satirist Bassem Youssef is a rising star in Egypt. His hit show, “El Bernameg,” began as a YouTube sensation but soon found its way onto television. But is Youssef’s scathing commentary making any kind of difference?
CAIRO – Bassem Youssef is still at it, sparing no one as he delivers his regular dose of scathing satire on Egypt's ONTV. But he's tired – mentally and emotionally. "It's been a rough year," he admits.
His air of defeat is worrying. It's been almost a year since Youseff, who is often compared to the popular American political comic Jon Stewart, launched his successful YouTube program "El Bernameg." In September he transitioned to ONTV. Youssef says he now feels cornered, that his work has had little effect on the Egyptian media and its audience.
Although its main focus is satire, El Bernameg – like Stewart's "The Daily Show" – functions as a de facto media watchdog. No public personality is spared; not even ONTV's owner, Naguib Sawiris.
Youssef insists that his attacks are never personal. "It's just the truth. If you say something I don't like, I'm going to talk about it." Some people have taken it personally: TV hosts Okasha and Khaled Abdullah, both ridiculed by Youssef, have retaliated with on-air name-calling. Abdullah challenged Youseff to appear on his talk show. But the invitation was quickly retracted. When Amr al-Leithy offered both TV hosts a spot on his show for their debate, Abdullah declined again.
Youssef can't resist a mischievous grin, acknowledging that it was a personal victory. "He's afraid to face me," he says. "It shows his weakness, not my strength."
Sticking to research and journalism
Creating satire is no easy task, and the El Bernameg team dedicates long hours to researching, archiving and locating patterns in the media footage that they monitor. "Jon Stewart once said ‘I don't believe in random creativity, I believe in constructive, planned creativity,"" Youssef explains. "And this is how we create. And it's all based on research and journalism."
Youssef says that he and his team are extremely critical of each other and everyone works equally hard on the product. "To work on this program, it's about passion, dedication and ethics," he says.
With his season coming to an end in March, Youssef has ambitious plans for his show's future: he hopes to bring the Jon Stewart talk show formula to Egypt; a one-hour talk show with various segments and a live audience at a real theater in central Cairo. An unprecedented formula in the Arab World.
"We have contributed to changing the face of media by introducing political satire and now we want to revolutionize the format itself," he says. "We want to revive the theater experience in Egypt through TV --that's huge."
Making the leap from YouTube
Youssef is a media phenomenon in Egypt. He is the first TV personality to transition from a massively successful YouTube show to a popular TV channel. His YouTube show remains the highest viewed in Egypt, with well over 33 million views, and it's the first and only Arabic YouTube channel in the Middle East with eight official commercial ads. But with the steep financial investment that the new format will demand, Youssef is unsure whether he will stay on ONTV or turn to other channels, Egyptian or regional.
Youssef and his team are heading to Tunisia, where they have been invited to film episodes of El Bernameg. This is the first time they film outside of Egypt. "It's a golden opportunity that we can't miss out on," he says. "Tunisia is where it all started. And instead of hearing about Tunisia, it's time that someone actually goes there to find out and understand."
But El Bernameg, with its six-day weeks and 12-hour days, has also taken a toll on Youssef's life. "My wife deserves a place in heaven," he says. "She's very supportive of the show and I'm very sorry that I'm doing this to her. I barely see my parents, my family…"
He's also made professional sacrifices; he has now little time to practice as a pediatric heart surgeon and recently rejected a fellowship offer at a prestigious pediatric hospital in the United States.
"I felt that I could have an impact with this show, that I can serve a certain message here, so I decided to stay," he says. With a baby on the way and the country's situation becoming increasingly daunting, he hopes he won't regret the decision.
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