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Taking the Piss out of Politics: The Middle East’s answer to Jon Stewart arrives in Sydney

Dubbed the ‘Jon Stewart of the Middle East’, Bassem Youssef’s satirical take on regional politics has won him a huge fan base in his Egyptian homeland and internationally. He has also attracted the ire of both religious and secular authoritarian regimes. Youssef landed in Sydney last month to deliver the “16th Inaugural Chaser Lecture,” where he shared his unique perspectives on Middle Eastern politics.

A heart surgeon by profession, Bassem Youssef shot to fame during the early stages of the Arab Spring after he started a homemade Egyptian version of The Daily Show on Youtube, which he hosted himself from his laundry room. The show rapidly won an audience of over 5 million viewers. Youssef’s online success eventually landing him a fully fledged live TV program called Al-Bernameg (literally,“The Show”), with an average audience of 40 million. 

Addressing a somewhat smaller audience at the Sydney Town Hall in November, Youssef explained how Western images of political dysfunction in the Middle East have it all wrong. When it comes to electing leaders, he said, politics in the Middle East is far more effective than in the West.

“I mean, look at a backwards Western country like the United States. They are spending $5m on a presidential campaign just to get a president for four years. In my region it only needs a couple of tanks and a media statement and you get a president for life,” he said.

Youssef spoke about his experience hosting the groundbreaking Al-Bernameg, first under the Islamist regime of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, and then under secular authoritarian rule of army chief, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

He is equally despised by both sides of politics. He and his production team have fought a series of legal battles, interrogations, and attempts at government censorship, and they have suffered personal threats by viewers loyal to both regimes.

Egyptian critics told him that making jokes during a time of civil conflict is inappropriate.

“Satire doesn’t need permission and if people are facing oppression then all the more reason to make fun of the people oppressing them while making people laugh and smile,” was Youssef’s response.

In 2014, Youssef announced the cancellation of his show live on air, alluding to government media censorship as a contributing factor. But even off air, Youssef continues to be criticised for making a mockery out of Egypt and its political system. 

"I definitely do not support the people who attacked us, accused us of heresy, had the gallows ready for us, and publicly demanded our arrest," he said. 

“Satire doesn’t need permission and if people are facing oppression then all the more reason to make fun of the people oppressing them while making people laugh and smile.”

– Bassem Youssef, Comedian.

Australian comedian Julian Morrow, from the ABC TV’s The Chaser, hosted Youssef during his Sydney visit. Speaking to The Point Magazine, Morrow said that talking back to politics through satire helps to push the envelope and address uncomfortable public issues.

“There’s no doubt that in particular Jon Stewart in America and Bassem in Egypt have been a lightning rod for a certain point of view, which is engaged with politics in an abrasive way, which is using satire to maintain its own position of being critical of authority. Satire generally doesn’t align itself with any regime and I personally think it is important for satire to take the piss out of the opposition as well,” he said.

In the United States, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report were the two most-watched late night talk shows among 18 to 49 year-olds in the first quarter of 2013, showing there is a significant appetite for political satire in the current TV market.

Some critics worry that comedy trivialises serious political issues and that cynicism has the potential to undermine trust in political institutions and processes.

“Our specific charge is that Mr. Stewart has engaged in unbridled political cynicism,” wrote Roderick Hart and Johanna Hartelius in their essay entitled “The Political Sins of Jon Stewart”. 

Morrow thinks this kind of criticism is misguided. He has also proposed a solution for any critics who might talk this way about political satire in Australia.

“We’re very lucky that broadly speaking free speech and the freedom to criticise authority is an unspoken premise. We operate in a very privileged bubble. The boundaries tend to get pushed towards being more ridiculous and that is in fact a sign of a healthy society. There are always countering views and people who are more narrow, or serious, or at best boring and at worst dangerous and they should be resisted by banana peels and fart jokes,” he said. 

 

The Point

Dubbed the ‘Jon Stewart of the Middle East’, Bassem Youssef’s satirical take on regional politics has won him a huge fan base in his Egyptian homeland and internationally

References

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