Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Tell jokes, go to jail

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
April 5, 2013 -- Updated 1012 GMT (1812 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bassem Youssef was charged with mocking Egypt's president and insulting Islam
  • Dean Obeidallah: Youssef, considered the Jon Stewart of Egypt, was performing comedy
  • He says there's fear in the Middle East that comedy will undermine political leaders
  • Obeidallah: Will Egypt's new president embrace democracy and freedom of expression?

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-host of a new CNN podcast "The Big Three" that looks at the top three stories of the week. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- Comedy scares people in power.

We saw a disturbing example this week when Egyptian TV host and comedian Bassem Youssef, frequently described as Egypt's Jon Stewart, was charged with the crimes of mocking Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy and insulting Islam. If convicted, Youssef could be fined and sentenced to prison.

Now, before you quickly categorize this incident under the catch all, "They hate us for our freedoms" crap, let's not forget our own history.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

Comedy legend Lenny Bruce was arrested not once but eight times, in the early 1960s for telling jokes that were considered obscene. However, Bruce's lawyer argued that the comedian was not being prosecuted for his profanity but rather for mocking political leaders and religion.

In 1964, Bruce was convicted of violating New York's obscenity laws and sentenced to four months of hard labor. Being sentenced to hard labor is doubly painful since comedians go into comedy to avoid hard labor. Bruce tragically died of a morphine overdose in 1966 while the appeal to his criminal conviction was pending.

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.



Today, a comedian in the United States is unlikely to be criminally prosecuted for profanity, mocking elected officials or ridiculing religion. (If they could, Bill Maher and countless others would probably be on death row.)

While some of our elected officials may hate being the target of comedians' barbs, none would argue that jokes are a threat to our nation.

In the Arab world, however, stand-up comedy and satirical political comedy shows like the one Bassem Youssef hosts are a very new development. There's a great fear in the region that this form of entertainment will undermine political leaders.

Egypt's Jon Stewart answers joke by joke

I have witnessed this anxiety firsthand while performing stand-up comedy across the Middle East.

The crowds are usually amazing. But we comedians are advised by show promoters to avoid telling jokes mocking the political leaders and religions -- not just Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism. And of course, no sexual humor or profanity.

I know many of you are thinking: So what's left to talk about? Actually, plenty. As comedians, we are accustomed to tailoring our acts to fit certain "special" shows.

In fact, while performing at a corporate event in the United States -- such as for employees at an annual corporate retreat -- one will generally encounter similar content boundaries: No jokes about politics, sex and religion, plus, keep it clean. (Hmm, funny how U.S. corporations and Middle Eastern governments impose the same content restrictions.)

But believe it or not, in the last few years the leash on comedians performing in the Middle East has loosened. For example, in certain countries, we had to write our comedy material out word for word so local government authorities could review it for appropriateness before a show.

Those days are gone. No one asks for scripts any longer, because the people in power have apparently become more comfortable with stand-up comedy. Some comedians have started to push the boundary by using some profanity and sexually suggestive material.

But Bassem Youssef did more. Inspired by Jon Stewart, he performed jokes about the president of Egypt by name, even mockingly dressing like him in sketches. To us, this is commonplace, but in Egypt this was unheard of. Keep in mind that until recently, Egypt was ruled by Hosni Mubarak, who limited public dissent in his almost 30 years of rule.

I always knew an Arab Jon Stewart or Chris Rock would emerge and use comedy to skewer political leaders. Youssef has become that icon. But now he's paying for his boldness.

The question is: Will Morsy move Egypt toward embracing democracy and freedom of expression? Or will he take a step back and follow the policies of Mubarak?

Being a democratic nation entails much more than simply having elections -- it means vigilantly guarding freedom of expression, including the right of all people -- comedians, journalists, bloggers, critics -- to poke fun or disagree with the government.

So far, early signs are not hopeful. The U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted out a link to a segment from Monday night's "The Daily Show" in which Stewart defended Youssef. The office of Egypt's president responded swiftly via Twitter: "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

President Morsy should make it clear that the revolution in Egypt truly ushered in democracy, and along with it freedom of expression. Otherwise, the new leadership will be perceived as just another oppressive government.

The world awaits Morsy's response.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT