Skip to main content

Will Egypt's Jon Stewart be stifled?

By H.A. Hellyer, Special to CNN
updated 11:03 AM EST, Mon December 31, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bassem Youssef, a heart surgeon, is a satirical sensation on Egyptian TV
  • His show mercilessly mocks politicians and religious radicals, says H.A. Hellyer
  • A legal complaint has been filed against him for insulting Egypt's president on the show
  • If the case proceeds, there could be free-speech repercussions, says Hellyer

Editor's note: H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and relations between the west and Muslim communities. He was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- Talk shows have proliferated in Egypt since the beginning of the January 25 revolution nearly two years ago. One host has become particularly famous, to the point of being described as the "Jon Stewart of the Arab world." Bassem Youssef was even a guest on "The Daily Show" itself in June, and recently CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour interviewed him about freedom of speech in Egypt.

In the aftermath of the passing of Egypt's new constitution, it seems Youssef himself may become an example of the ultimate test of that very freedom.

Since Youssef -- a 38-year-old heart surgeon -- hit the airwaves in 2011, he's received a great deal of criticism for his satirical style, expressed in a quintessentially Egyptian idiom and flair. No one, it seems, escapes his sharp tongue -- if they are in the political arena or have affected public discourse, then they're fair game. The more significant their influence and impact, the more they can expect to be lampooned on Youssef's weekly program -- called, simply, "The Program."

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer

All the famous members of the political opposition today, such as the Nobel Laureate Mohammed el-Baradei, as well as all the major candidates in this year's historic presidential election, have been the subject of spoof on "The Program." The show's latest season began a few weeks ago, and, as expected, the country's new president, Mohamed Morsy, as well as his "renaissance" project to improve Egypt, was critiqued and scoffed at for political failings.

News: Morsy praises voters as constitution becomes law

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



While Jon Stewart may be unpopular in certain sections of America, it's hard to imagine him being sued or censured for his scathing wit. In Egypt, however, the very day after the new constitution was approved in a poorly attended vote on December 22, a lawyer filed a complaint with the prosecutor general against Youssef for "insulting" President Morsy on his show. The complaint involves one of Youssef's recent episodes, when Youssef affectionately held a pillow imprinted with the president's picture amid hearts. If the prosecutor takes it up, it could become a serious case.

Other threats have come from religious radicals. Youssef is, in his own words, a "proud Muslim," and has made it clear on his show and in interviews that he takes his religion seriously. Like many Egyptians, he is particularly sensitive to a religious discourse that divides, encourages polarization and incites hatred. His show has mocked the sectarian and heterodox preachers and journalists who promote such sentiments. In response, many of those same figures have viciously attacked Youssef's program, claiming that it is "religiously impermissible."

Rebuilding after revolution
Egypt approves 'ambiguous' constitution
Egyptian opposition allege vicious abuse

The public, however, seems uninterested in such politicization of religion, and more mainstream religious figures, such as Habib Ali al-Jifri of the Tabah Foundation, declared that the abuse of religion in the discourse Youssef was criticizing was a real problem.

Opinion: Middle East will muddle through 2013

But Youssef's program is not really the point. Rather, it is a test case. The reaction to his show touches upon two key issues for post-revolution Egypt: freedom of expression, particularly with figures in authority, and the reaction of Egyptian society toward the abuse of religion for sectarian, political gain.

The protests that led to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's downfall were indelibly linked to breaking the curtain of fear that surrounded any criticism of a political figure. Egyptian society is unlikely to favor going back to that kind of public atmosphere. While the overwhelming majority of Egyptians are not given or sympathetic to sectarian or radical ideas, many were unaware -- or ignored -- that there is a potent minority that supports such notions. How Egyptians now respond in terms of both issues will affect not only Youssef's television program, but how Egypt itself will develop in the months and years to come.

Incidentally, with true Egyptian humor, Youssef responded to the news of the legal complaint against him in a way that shows he still intends to carry on: He asked Morsy to autograph the pillow in question.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of H.A. Hellyer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT