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
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT