How Comedy Helped Egypt’s Jon Stewart Survive Fascism

Over a year ago

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