Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Bassem Youssef: 'Sarcasm is a weapon'

By Ian Lee and Teo Kermeliotis, CNN
June 28, 2013 -- Updated 1108 GMT (1908 HKT)
  • 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."

Behind the scenes of 'Al Bernameg'
Bassem Youssef the politician?

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

Egyptian movie star: 'Arabs are not terrorists'

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.

I'm going to do this until the ceiling is broken or we are shut down.
Bassem Youssef, Egyptian TV host

"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."

Read this: 'Egypt's Brad Pitt' calls for people power

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.

Comedian crackdown sparks backlash
'Egypt's Jon Stewart' interrogated

"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."

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1253 GMT (2053 HKT)
Through a variety of exhibitions including one signed off by the artist himself, Nigeria is presenting J.D. Okhai Ojeikere to the world one last time.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
Mulatu Astake may be the father of a musical genre: Ethio-jazz. But when he talks about the art form, he tends to focus on its scientific merits.
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
U.S. response to Ebola is key for setting global example, writes global health advocate Idris Ayodeji Bello.
December 9, 2014 -- Updated 1339 GMT (2139 HKT)
Using his deep-rooted knowlege of herbs, savvy entrepreneur Alhaji Mustapha Oti Boateng had an idea to help his fellow Ghanaians.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1222 GMT (2022 HKT)
One of the most debilitating medical conditions in sub-Saharan Africa isn't fatal. In fact, it's easily curable.
December 8, 2014 -- Updated 1500 GMT (2300 HKT)
Nigerian architect Olajumoke Adenowo reveals her tips for success, mentorship and what she'd like to do next.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Developers, designers and big thinkers gather together on the rooftop of the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos to discuss ideas.
Pius Adesanmi: Activist diaspora insists on her story of Africa -- and social media has enhanced its voice.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1048 GMT (1848 HKT)
Amos Wekesa has seen a lot of changes in his country. Today, the self-made millionaire oversees Great Lakes Safaris, one of the largest tour operators in Uganda.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1010 GMT (1810 HKT)
Photographer Ernest Cole made it his life mission to capture the injustice of apartheid in South Africa.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 0936 GMT (1736 HKT)
In the largely male-dominated world of the motorsport, South African superbike racer Janine Davies is an anomaly.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 1848 GMT (0248 HKT)
Athi-Patra Ruga,
For anyone that needs convincing that African art is the next big thing, they need look no further than 1:54, the London-based contemporary African art fair.
December 1, 2014 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
He's one of Malawi's best abstract artists and now the 40-year-old dreamer is revealing his journey in to the world of art.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.