How Comedy Helped Egypt’s Jon Stewart Survive Fascism
Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has known two kinds of fear - one good and one bad.
Bassem Youssef is an Egyptian satirist, frequently dubbed “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” and is one of the most famous television stars the Arab world. His show "Al Bernameg” (“The Program”) is the Egyptian equivalent of “The Daily Show.”
Youssef's wildly popular program is now off the air, after the new Egyptian government led by military leader President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made it abundantly clear it would not take kindly any jokes made at the regime’s expense. Youssef’s show started in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. Youssef, a cardiac surgeon by training, was treating the wounded in Tahrir Square when a friend encouraged him to create funny content on YouTube.
They developed the YouTube show because they sensed Egypt, a country long ruled by military strongmen, was hungry for an irreverent take on politics. Youssef made merciless fun of then-President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the winners of Egypt’s first free and fair election.
Jon Stewart was so impressed by the copycat Egyptian act he not only invited Youssef to appear on “The Daily Show,” he also appeared on “Al Bernameg.” Following an extended stay in the U.S. as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, Youssef is starring in The Democracy Handbook, a new digital series and television special satirizing politics and culture in the United States.
Bassem Youseef: There's always the fear of failure. Fear of failure I think that was my biggest nightmare. When people tell me like you were persecuted like there was like a warrant for your arrest. I didn't really care about that, what I was always worried about is that the next show will not to be as good; that we are not going to perform. I remember like when I was taken to questioning for six hours I told my team if we did a bad show they would win. So I was always worried about making the best job I can do because that's basically your capital. If you're not good enough nobody will really care about you. And I always thought of this as my biggest support.
So maybe you could call this a creative fear, but it was the fear of failure, the fear of judgment. Especially in the society that we're living in right now when people are very, very, very fast to judge there is basically absolutely no mercy, I imagine that maybe some of the veteran legends in entertainment if they had social media 30, 40, 50 years ago people would be very unforgiving and maybe their career would have ended very fast very soon. Like we see now I think social media is a huge driver of that fear. You know people's opinion instantly and it can crush someone, it can crush people, it can end people's career even. So on a personal level that was my fear, fear of failure. On a bigger level there's another kind of fear, which is the fear that is the biggest asset of any fascist government, and it doesn't really matter if you are a person living under a dictatorship in the Middle East or under a right wing government anywhere else in the Western World where they use fear, patriotism and xenophobia to drive the masses.
It's the same thing, fear is an incredible mover of the masses. It brainwashes people. It makes people accept and even vote or something that's against their own personal interests totally out of fear. And speaking about that particular point, it is the same reason why fascisms have a very poor sense of humor because when you have satire you're not afraid anymore. They don't want you thinking – they don't want you to think and laugh, they want you to be in constant state of fear. If you're laughing at them you're basically laughing at their brainwashing techniques, at their use of fear and it's not effective anymore, but if they don't want that. As a matter of fact there have been stories about I think Hitler, one of the first people that he abolished were the serialists and the satirists. I don't know if that's true or not but it sounds intelligent so I'm going to say it. That's why satire is an incredible antidote to fear and the people in power they will try to belittle you; they will call you a joke, a clown, a fool, but in the process of doing that they're making a fool out of their selves, they're becoming the clown and they are the ones who are becoming a joke.
Atychiphobia is the fear of failure. While the phobia itself can lead to a constricted existence that gets in the way of a healthy and productive life, many people can say that they have, at least once, been terrified to fail at something. And more often than not, it prevented them from trying in the first place. Not even Egyptian TV satirist, columnist, and former cardiac surgeon Bassem Youssef – a man who can seemingly do anything – is immune to fearing failure. Even while he was issued with a warrant for his arrest and investigated by the country’s top prosecutor for allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian president, Youssef’s greatest fear was not jail time, but rather making a bad episode of his satirical show, Al-Bernameg (The Program).
Because of this fear, he pushed himself to create better shows – if his popularity waned he would lose the support of the masses for whom he spoke. In his eyes, the government would win. Youssef cites this as a healthy fear; it pushed him to be better than he had been before.
But he also considers a second kind of fear, used for less benevolent objectives. Fascist regimes use fear as a tool to move the masses in a controlled direction. Fear can make people do things they wouldn’t normally do, even if it harms them or stamps out their life’s desires.
Many governments, as Youssef points out, use fear to keep people under control. Currently, an Egyptian man is serving three years in jail for posting a meme depicting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi with Mickey Mouse ears. With this minute level of control over the population, individuals become too scared to speak against the authorities. They become too scared to even think of rebellion.
The fear of being jailed over something so small, like a meme or a mere whisper of defiance, is an iron-clad way of making people behave, but the strong reaction against something so trivial is only proof how how powerful and potent even a drop of satire can be. One small glimpse can give birth to thought and contemplation of the status quo. It’s hard to be scared of the Egyptian president while looking at his face with Mickey Mouse ears. That’s where satirists such as Youssef come in, but in a much more daring capacity. They know that if they can make you laugh, they can make you think, too.
Youssef positions satire as an antidote to fear and fascism. When someone is laughing, in that moment they are not afraid. Only fascists and xenophobes fear laughter. It corrodes their power.
Bassem Youssef's book is Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring