Skip to main content

Will Egypt's Jon Stewart be stifled?

By H.A. Hellyer, Special to CNN
December 31, 2012 -- Updated 1603 GMT (0003 HKT)
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
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT