Calling the comedian Bassem Youssef “the Egyptian Jon Stewart” has misled people as to why he is important — and why he’s being attacked by his government.
Youssef is a U.S.-trained heart surgeon whose satirical skits on YouTube during Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolt became an overnight sensation. The clips were so popular that a satellite TV channel signed him up for a regular show, “The Program,” arguably the biggest draw now on Egyptian television.
This week, Youssef turned himself in after he was charged with insulting President Mohammed Morsi and defaming Islam. He was granted bail, but the arrest made waves: The State Department condemned it as an attack on free speech. That triggered an accusation from the ruling Freedom and Justice Party of “blatant interference” by the United States. And when Jon Stewart pilloried the arrest on his “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo put the clip on Twitter, before pulling it in response to an angry response from Morsi’s official Twitter account, denouncing U.S. “propaganda.”
Like Stewart, Youssef will take on anyone, but he has a special gripe with a particular tribe of politicians. In Stewart’s case, Republicans are the preferred target. For Youssef, it’s Islamist politicians and clerics. He described his approach at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum last month: “My goal is to show that these guys aren’t holy when they are talking about politics, that they can be criticized, they can be wrong.”
Stewart derided Morsi for being threatened by a comedian, even though the government has all the power, including tanks. Yet Youssef really does present a danger to the emerging Islamist establishment in Egypt by directly challenging the idea that certain politicians have a divine mandate.
Take a recent show, where Youssef addressed the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt. He broadcast a series of film clips that showed Salafist clerics making absurd defenses of sexual abuse. One preacher is seen declaring that women had themselves to blame for rapes, because God endowed them with strong thighs to prevent assault.
Politicians who spout similar nonsense can be found in many other countries. In Egypt, however, the targets of Youssef’s mockery are clerics who claim authority derived from the Prophet Muhammad and the Koran. An attack on these clerics is, in their view, also an attack on Islam. This is the crux of the accusation that Youssef defamed Islam. He denies the charge and says it is Islamists who defame his religion, by abusing it for political gain.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have reason to feel insecure. Incompetence, political overreach and economic failure have eroded support for the group since Islamists swept 73 percent of parliamentary seats in the country’s first democratic elections after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. By June 2012, Morsi took just 51.7 percent of the vote to win the presidency against 48.3 percent for Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik. In the first round of national student-council elections last month, Brotherhood candidates won less than 30 percent of the vote.
Rather than trying to improve its appeal to voters, the Brotherhood is attacking opponents and trying to stifle critical media. This week, another comedian, Ali Qandil, was arrested on charges of defaming religion. According to Amnesty International, he was one of 33 journalists, bloggers and activists arrested in the past two weeks alone. At the same time, the Brotherhood is driving through legislation that would restrain nonprofit organizations (especially those with foreign support) and purging the government of non-Brotherhood members.
Morsi should remember that Egypt’s dictators were once popular, too. There were times in their careers when Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and even Mubarak could have won free elections, had they deigned to allow them. It was their behavior toward opponents that made them unpopular.
Morsi can still avoid this mistake, but only if he and his fellow Islamists focus on what Egyptians want: an improved economy. This means enacting the reforms that the International Monetary Fund demands in order to release a $4.8 billion loan. Investments, from both foreign and domestic sources, won’t proceed until an IMF program is in place.
The Freedom and Justice Party remains the favorite to win the parliamentary elections. To do well, it will need to revive Egypt’s foundering economy. Suppressing free speech, arresting comedians and prosecuting imagined insults, whether against themselves or their particular understanding of Islam, won’t do it.