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Bassem Youssef: 'Sarcasm is a weapon'

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Story highlights

  • Bassem Youssef is known as 'Egypt's Jon Stewart'
  • He is the host of a popular TV show poking fun at Egyptian news and politics
  • But his satire has often caused him trouble, and lawsuits have been filed against him
  • Youssef says comedy is key to rebuilding Egypt

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN)There's a plaque affixed to the wall inside the lounge room of the downtown Cairo studio where Bassem Youssef films "Al Bernameg" ("The Program"), the Arab world's most watched TV show.

"Sarcasm," reads the top line in big capital letters. "Because beating the f*** out of people is illegal," it continues.

Reading the sign, Youssef's face instinctively turns into a familiar wide grin, similar to the one with which he greets the legions of viewers who tune in every week to watch him poking fun at news and politics.

But seconds later he shifts to a slightly more pensive stance. "Sometimes you are too emotional to do things that might be illegal, so you revert to sarcasm and comedy," says Youssef, who is frequently described as "Egypt's Jon Stewart."

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"It's a huge weapon," he adds. "It's a very important weapon."

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    Armed with sharp-tongued humor, Youssef has become an icon for many in post-revolutionary Egypt. A trained heart surgeon, he started his satirical show from his flat amid the uprising, posting his work on YouTube. It got so popular that a major Egyptian channel picked it up. Since then, his satirical show has been drawing in tens of millions of viewers week in, week out, not just in Egypt but also across the Middle East and North Africa.

    Yet not everyone is a fan.

    Just a few months ago, Egypt's public prosecutor charged him with defaming President Mohamed Morsy, insulting Islam and spreading false news. Islamists have also filed a number of legal complaints on political or religious grounds, but activists say it's part of a campaign to silence the TV host.

    Youssef says the reaction is rooted in Egypt's patriarchal society, a culture which, he says, does not tolerate criticism of those who are deemed more powerful: from elders to authorities.

    "This is what has put us down as a community, as a population, for so long. We can't really talk back," says the 39-year-old.

    "It was fine when it was your parents but it's not fine when it's people with authority," he adds. "But we do that and we do it with humor and we do it with sarcasm. And people equate being laughed at as being ridiculed, (saying) 'I can't be ridiculed by this little dot dot dot brat' -- you can put whatever you want about me."

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    Last week Youssef welcomed to Al Bernameg Jon Stewart, the popular American comedian and host of the "Daily Show." For 20 minutes, the two satirists engaged in a wide-ranging conversation that veered from hilarious to serious to poignant, notwithstanding Stewart's support for his Egyptian counterpart.

    "It doesn't get me into the kind of trouble that gets you into," Stewart told Youssef in response to a question about any backlash he's faced. "I get into trouble but nowhere near what happens to you," added Stewart, before continuing, "if your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don't have a regime."

    While Youssef's comedy has brought him trouble on many occasions, the satirist says he's going to continue pushing the boundaries and battling for freedom of speech.

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    "This is by far the most important issue that everybody should fight for," he says. "If you start to suppress people's freedom of speech under whatever excuse you want -- 'it's not good for the country, it's not good for the building of the country' -- so every time they say this, we raise the ceiling, we raise the roof, we push it further. And I'm going to do this until the ceiling is broken or we are shut down."

    Shutting down is a real possibility, as lawsuits continue to be filed. But Youssef shrugs off the prospect with his usual humor. "I'm going to have a holiday if they stop me," he smirks. "Ah, I need a holiday."

    He admits, however, that dealing with Egypt's day-to-day reality does have an effect on him.

    "It brings me down all the time," says Youssef. "It's very difficult to write a show with all this happening; it becomes very depressing and it's overwhelming, it overshadows everything that you do."

    Yet he remains adamant that comedy is key for Egypt to get through the current turmoil.

    "Countries aren't built by boring people," he says. "As matter of fact, entertainment is a great industry so it helps to actually build the country.

    "The thing is we aren't just being funny 'haha,' we are criticizing political situations. You can't just let it go. Other people can talk for hours about what's going on in the country. We take a couple of jokes and everyone talks about the problem.

    "So, in a way, we are building the country."