CAIRO, Egypt, April 1, 2013 – In a move widely viewed as a crackdown on the press and free speech, Egyptian authorities arrested political satirist Bassem Youssef on charges of insulting Islam and President Morsi.
The international press recently compared American Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” with Egyptian Bassem Youssef’s “Al Bernameg” or “The Show.”
In Egypt, political satire is a relatively new phenomenon. Bassem Youssef, who says he was inspired by Stewart, started his show in March 2011, after the Egyptian revolution which deposed Hosni Mubarak. It is the first Arab political show, and is a phenomenal success.
Youssef has hosted a wide range of guests, including celebrities and former presidential candidates, including Mohamed El Baradei and Hazem Salah Abou Ismail. In addition to providing a new type of entertainment for Egyptians, many observers credit Youssef with providing a realistic view of Egypt as opposed to the skewed view often seen in mainstream international media.
When Jon Stewart hosted Youssef on his show on June 21, 2012, he noted the similarities between them. Stewart said satirical political shows benefit society, and that, “there are certain people who get a cathartic or enjoyable moment and it helps them, it is a release value in some respects.”
In fact, humor and satire is an important indicator of free societies. In closed societies, the government forbids criticism or satire of the ruling class.
Humor is a unique tool for artists or writers seeking to magnify defects of their society. Stewart and Bassem’s satire offers a cross-section of perspectives on iissues from government policies to freedom of expression.
Unfortunately, Youssef is facing serious challenges. In January, an Islamist lawyer filed charges against Youssef for humiliating the president.
As Egypt struggles with the aftermath of its revolution and goes through the process of political maturity, it is also struggling with the role of the media. Youssef displays exceptional courage by airing his show and publicly voicing many of the questions individual Egyptians ask in private.
The Egyptian media is developing in parallel to the political situation. Political humor, and media openness can help support the country as it moves to political maturity.
Jeffrey P. Jones in his book “Entertaining Politics: Satiric T.V. Political Engagement” noted the temptation to criticize the Daily shows for its redaction techniques, selecting damning video clips that are taken out of context and then used to ridicule or embarrass politicians, all for a laugh. Yet satirical shows can provide new perspectives and information to help citizens make choices about politics. The increasingly media savvy public realizes that there is no longer unbiased news reporting, and they yearn for other means of establishing truth and reality. In fact, citizens are looking for truth in contemporary political communication on T.V. “…a lot of T.V. viewers, more, quite frankly, than I am comfortable with, get their news from the comedy channel on a program called The Daily Show.”
Despite all the controversy, “The Show” is well executed, sparking and a phenomenal success that many Egyptian viewers believe gives them hope for a better tomorrow.
However, Youssef’s arrest is raising fears in Egypt that the country is moving away from freedom and toward repression.
Last week, President Morsi warned he would take whatever action was necessary to stop the political violence wracking the country. The recent arrests seem a dire implementation of that warning.
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