Egyptian Political Satirist Bassem Youssef On Media And The Arab Spring
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
At its height, Bassem Youssef's satirical show in Egypt had a quarter of the country tuning. That some 30 to 40 million people per episode. The surgeon-turned-comedian had ratings his idol Jon Stewart would die for. Youssef's biting comedy took aim at first at Islamists and then at the military regime that took over, but his popularity was not enough to save him.
He eventually had to flee the country after death threats and a court case against him. He's living in the U.S. now, and he has a new book out. It's called "Revolution For Dummies: Laughing Through The Arab Spring." Bassem Youssef joins us on the line from our studios in New York. Welcome.
BASSEM YOUSSEF: Hi.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You start your book warning the listener - rather, the reader - that this is not a primer on the Middle East or Middle East politics. This is for Americans who may not know much about the region. Why did you write the book at this particular time? What did you want people to know about the Arab Spring?
YOUSSEF: One part of it is when I was watching people talking with the Middle East, they always talk about the power struggle, but they don't tell you how people get to power, how people convince millions of citizens to vote against their own interests or to believe into conspiracy theories. And I think the media is a huge factor in that. And nobody really talks about how media in the Arab world is being directed or formed or used to form a narrative. And me, being a political satirist, taking my aim most of the time at the media, I thought that this is important.
Now, when I was writing the book, certain changes were happening in America - the same exact kind of conspiracy theories, alternative facts, thin-skinned presidents who cannot take a joke. I could see parallels. I could see similarities. And I could actually use that to make the topic of the Middle East, which is usually very elusive, more palatable for people to understand.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to get to the elections in the United States a little bit later, but let's go back to the beginning. In the first half of the book, you talk about taking on the Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, who were in power at that point. And at that point, you had a lot of liberals applauding you for taking on religious demagoguery, if you will. And then what happened when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power? You were critical of him, too. What did your fans think then?
YOUSSEF: Many of them didn't approve. Many of them hated me. Many of them actually believed that I was a spy or an operative, or I hated the army, or I hated the country. And many of them were actually members of my family. So it just showed me how hypocritical they were. They were fine with me as long as my jokes hit the direction that they wanted to hit. And I was basically hated by the same people who cheered for me a few days before.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: When you were at the height of your fame in Egypt, did you think it was going to protect you?
YOUSSEF: Something inside me was telling me that this was not going to last. I didn't imagine that I would have to leave the country, but it was a possibility, especially under the military regime. I was basically counting my days. I felt that I was living on borrowed time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think authoritarians find comedy so frightening?
YOUSSEF: Because comedy takes away their fake respect. All of these dictators basically draw their legitimacy and their status from people fearing them. You cannot fear something that you laugh at. That's why they always crack down on comedians - because anything that they would say that will sound big, and they'll sound massive, and they will sound inspiring - it's being taken down by comedians. And they cannot stand that.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Comedians on the front lines.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) You've come to America at an interesting time. And I'm going to play a clip of a comedy sketch you just did. You're satirizing people's fears of Muslims by using a breathalyzer. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "BREATHE EASY WITH BASSEM YOUSSEF")
YOUSSEF: Sick of being nervous around everyone? Then you need the Breathe Easy. Using a simple-to-read meter, the Breathe Easy will accurately register how many of radicle enzymes or rad-enzymes (ph) are found on a scale from likes hummus to supporter of ISIS. Simply have your friend blow into the Breathe Easy. You'll be able to gauge how much unjustified fear you should actually have.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why make a joke about that right now?
YOUSSEF: Why not?
YOUSSEF: I think joking about stuff kind of, like, takes the tension out. I think people are just, like, taking stuff too seriously. And I think we, as Middle Easterners and Arabs and Muslims, should do more of making fun of ourselves and making fun of the stuff that's happening to us. You know, I think satire comes from a great pain and suffering, and it's very important to take what you're facing and put it out in a light matter. So maybe we, as Middle Eastern who are now viewed as the biggest evil in the world - if we come up and make fun of it, some people can actually look at us as, you know, oh, they could laugh, too, other than just blowing stuff up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Were you surprised to find yourself fleeing one country - Egypt - and ending up in an America that feels so polarized and tense right now?
YOUSSEF: No. I thought of myself as a bad omen. It seems that every country I go, some crazy dictator takes over.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You think it's you.
YOUSSEF: I think it's me, but I understand what's happening. But the thing is it's not just about Muslims. When racism arrives, it doesn't look to your ID card. It doesn't look too your history. It doesn't go into your bedroom to see how many prayers you do a day. When racism arrives, it doesn't discriminate. It really goes and spread the hate, and it will affect everybody.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's next for you?
YOUSSEF: Well, it seems that everybody who's talking about the Middle East, about Muslims are people who are not from the Middle East or not Muslims. So maybe, like, I could be part of this conversation. Maybe I can offer a different perspective. Maybe not all of us are angry people who just want to bring the country down. Maybe I can just use satire to show people a different perspective, a different aspect of what's happening in my own part of the world.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you imagine going back to Egypt? Is there - is there a moment that you can see yourself doing that?
YOUSSEF: Honestly and sadly, I can't imagine it right now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bassem Youssef - his new book is called "Revolution For Dummies." Thank you so much.
YOUSSEF: Thank you very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHUSMO'S "LONGA NAKREZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.