Satirist’s rise to fame and censure an allegory for Egypt’s press freedom

Egyptians watch comedian Bassem Youssef's show as they sit at a public coffee shop in Cairo on April 5, 2013. Youssef's wildly popular program was pulled from the air suddenly Friday after its network accused the show of violating editorial policies.

CAIRO, Egypt — On Friday night, millions of Egyptians gathered around televisions to find out who would be the latest target of boundary-pushing political satirist Bassem Youssef.

Known widely in the press as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” Youssef has offered fearless critiques and parodies of Egypt’s leadership since the 2011 revolution, something which has previously landed him in the prosecutor's office.

Unsurprisingly, that’s made him hugely popular with many Egyptians frustrated by their country’s political powers-that-be.

But the viewers who tuned in Friday for what was to be second episode of the season were greeted by another presenter, the gray-clad Khairy Ramadan, who informed fans that the evening’s entertainment was cancelled.

In a statement, privately owned satellite channel CBC said that Youssef and his team's "El Bernameg," or "The Program," had been pulled off the air because the show's creators “insisted on violating [the channel’s] editorial policy."

The satirist’s suspension has raised fears that the space for dissent, already limited under Morsi, has grown even narrower under Egypt’s new authorities. It comes just one week after Youssef’s season premiere mocked the fevered nationalism that has swept Egypt since the July 3 military-led takeover.

Oct. 25 was the first time in four months Youssef had appeared on TV. In the episode, he took aim at the growing cult of personality for General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief whose likeness has become a favored truffle and cake decoration. “Sisi has turned into ... chocolate,” Youssef joked.

Though Youssef avoided explicit criticism of the army, his condemnation of the ongoing military-initiated crackdown was clear.

"It is difficult to ignore the number of people who are treated unjustly, whether by being detained or killed, just because they are in the wrong place, or because of rumours or suspicion," he said, referring to state efforts to push supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from public life.

Mass killings and arrests since July have left more than 1,000 dead and more than 2,000 arrested. The sweeps have often engulfed non-Islamist opponents of the government as well as bystanders.

Youssef’s series opener prompted a number of legal complaints from military supporters. CBC, whose programming largely supported the July 3 coup, distanced itself from the program's content.

The channel’s latest decision “shows very clearly that the extant Egyptian media has decided that post-Morsi Egypt is going to have different red lines,” said Dr. H.A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution.

“Bassem Youssef is only one media personality — but the message to him will be heard loud and clear by other media personalities, the more independent of which have yet to return to screens.”

Youssef’s rise to fame and censure is an allegory for Egypt’s shifting boundaries of political expression since its 2011 revolution. The former heart surgeon volunteered in makeshift medical centers during the uprising, before using the country’s apparent new freedoms to poke fun at political leaders in low-budget skits he uploaded to YouTube.

Today, the satirist's hit television show has drawn over 30 million viewers. Youssef was included in Time Magazine's 2013 list of the world's most influential people, his entry penned by Jon Stewart, who described the Egyptian as his hero.

But the surge in attention has been accompanied by the more unwelcome gaze of Egypt’s authorities. In April, Youssef was interrogated for allegedly insulting both Morsi and Islam.

Media freedom in general has grown even more limited since the military-led takeover. Most Islamist media outlets have been shut down, and private media has largely stuck to the government script, backing the crackdown and depicting anyone who speaks out as an enemy of the nation.

Those present during the filming of Friday night’s unaired episode said that Youssef took the media, rather than the military, to task, focusing on the weakness of the Egyptian journalism and the double-standards of his own channel, CBC.

“He really bashed the channel,” said well-known Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh, who was in the audience for the pre-recorded show. “His message was clear: we don’t have a free media, either in Egypt or in the Arab world.”

It wasn’t the first time that the satirist has taken aim at the channel’s owners, but Youssef now operates in a more charged political context with less tolerance for dissent. Experts believe that CBC’s claim that Youssef had broken contractual obligations provides cover for the fact that his willingness to touch upon sensitive issues could harm the show’s commercial viability.

“Self-censorship is likely in this situation and there are obvious commercial factors involved, given that it’s a very lucrative show” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “Of course the mechanics of how and why it’s been pulled are still to be determined, but what is clear is that Bassem Youssef has run afoul of the stultifying environment of hyper-nationalism, and that was enough to cancel the show.”

Lina Attalah, the editor of new independent media venture Mada Masr, describes self-censorship as a “form of negotiation” that many publications in Egypt have used to survive years of authoritarianism.

It is also, she says, a problem that becomes particularly pronounced in a media landscape dominated by state publications or private media owned by a handful of individuals. She believes there is little space for diversity of voices or approaches.

“The problem with media here now is that they don't operate as enterprises with working business models but are just dependent on the checks of their businessmen,” she said. “The best example is the decision by CBC to stop Bassem Youssef for political reasons despite the economic viability of the show.”

“The media [have been] reduced to the political discretion of their proprietors and not their own need to sustain themselves as independent entities,” she concluded.

Hanna believes the decision to take Youssef off-air will not play well for Egypt’s new administration.

“This was an unforced error,” he said. “It opens up a crude but ready-made comparison with the Morsi period. It's very shortsighted because the new order comes out looking worse.”