Poking fun at anarchy

Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef takes a biting look at the Arab Spring and Mideast turmoil.

Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef talks during a news conference in Cairo in 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef talks during a news conference in Cairo in 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Bassem Youssef, the Cairo native heart surgeon-cum-comedian, is often referred to as the Egyptian Jon Stewart. It’s a fitting comparison when watching the two crack jokes on the green screen, but on the page, Youssef more resembles Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua.
Both writers are bitingly and wryly funny, extremely self-deprecating (“I hope you didn’t regret paying for [this] damn thing,” he writes in the book’s acknowledgments, “or that you can find a way to claim a tax deduction come April”) and completely certain that nothing good will befall the respective places they call home.
The comedian’s first book, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring, traces the rise of his wildly popular television program, El Bernameg, Egypt’s Arab Spring and the demise of presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi.
Youssef, in writing for an American audience, sets the stage with a one-page primer on Shari’a law, a “crash course” in political Islam, and has a penchant for summing up foreign aspects of the Middle East into witty one-liners. “If the Muslim Brotherhood were Southern Baptists, the Salafis are the Westboro Baptist Church,” he explains.
The book, though often flippantly written, addresses issues that far weightier philosophers and political scientists are unable to answer; for instance, why democracy doesn’t work in the Middle East.
“We are too afraid of some ephemeral God to vote in our own self-interest,” he writes. And perhaps his tongue-in-cheek style allows him to give the honest, albeit ugly answers without having to beat around the bush.
After a few legal brushes with the Egyptian government relating to his critical program (Youssef was arrested for insulting former president Morsi and showing contempt for Islam on his show – he mocked a hat the president wore and Morsi’s “less than fluent English”), the comedian has taken up residence in California.
Now working on a new television program based in the United States, Youssef makes parallels between Sisi’s Egypt and Trump’s America.
“Fact-checking the authorities [in the Middle East] is looked upon as a form of mutiny against the country... When I see Trump making things up, like claiming that Obama created ISIS, and people believe him and even claim that the media are covering it up, is no different from what I saw at home,” he writes.
An incredible amount of ink is spilled on Youssef’s idol, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart. Some 150 pages into the book, Youssef writes, “By now you probably recognize that I am beyond just a groupie fan girl for Jon Stewart. People usually are obsessed with rock stars, models and actors… and not often a short Jewish satirist from New Jersey, but it was because of him that I started my own show.”
Youssef recounts Stewart’s trip to Egypt, his appearance on Stewart’s show and their relationship evolving from one of a fan and a superstar to one of equal colleagues.
Youssef’s resolve is admirable and he recounts the many times he took risks that endangered both his career and personal safety, but it’s not entirely clear where the upper middle class, Muslim, ex-heart surgeon’s willingness to put it all on the line comes from. It’s clear that he hates the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafis, Mubarak and Sisi, but it would be interesting to get a better idea of what exactly it is that makes him tick.
The book should be received well in the United States, a country which loves having comedians explain complicated and protracted issues. During the reign of Stewart at the Daily Show, more than 10% of all Americans said that the show was where they got their news, according to a Pew research poll. Youssef’s book, with a winking, bearded emoji on the cover, and chapters that often have as few as three pages, will be welcomed much more warmly in his adopted country than his home one.