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The ‘Egyptian Jon Stewart’ Takes Us Inside the Arab Spring and Its Aftermath

We met the famous surgeon-turned-satirist and subject of the new documentary Tickling Giants.

by Kaleem Aftab
May 11 2016, 3:25pm

Bassem Youssef in 'Tickling Giants.' Courtesy of Sarkasmos Productions LLC

Bassem Youssef is one of the most famous men on the planet, with 7 million followers on Twitter, but at dinner parties in the US, it's only when you say, the "Egyptian Jon Stewart" that there is a look of recognition.

Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth argues that the dehumanization of people is a form of colonialism. In the American media, the dehumanization comes in the form of demonizing people, which is why the only Middle Eastern men that you can probably name are those America has wanted to topple or murder. The good guys remain nameless. Which creates a problem when it comes to men like 42-year-old Bassem Youssef, a.k.a. the Jon Stewart of Egypt. Youssef only became a bona fide good guy in the West, when he was made relatable, and the only way the American media knew how to do that was to Americanize him.

Enter Daily Show producer Sara Taksler. Her documentary Tickling Giants, which premiered last month at the Tribeca Film Festival, seeks to show how Youssef is so much more than an Egyptian Jon Stewart. The engaging film brings viewers along for Youssef's unlikely journey from a heart surgeon, tending to the wounded at Tahrir Square during the 2011 Egyptian revolution, to an international celebrity, speaking truth to power, one joke at a time.

It was Youssef's friend who initially suggested that the surgeon post satirical videos of the Arab Spring on YouTube. After decades of a dictator controlling the media with an iron fist, it was the first time that someone so brazenly questioned the authority of President Mubarak. He said the things that the populace thought, but dared not say, and he did so with a comedic twinkle in his blue eyes.

Within weeks, offers of fronting a TV show came flooding in, and the doctor was faced with the dilemma of whether to continue serving the public in hospitals, or to embark on a career as a full-time comedian. He chose the latter. Soon his show—titled Al-Bernameg, or The Show in English—was poking fun at the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader Mohamed Morsi, who had won the first free elections in Egypt in 2012. He lampooned Morsi's attempts at speaking English and the bending of the rule of law.

Youssef's popularity led him to being invited onto Stewart's The Daily Show in June 2012, where he met Taksler for the first time. "I was impressed that they were doing something like I do, but with higher stakes," she told me. "I'm somebody who processes life, politics, and the world through humor, and it was hard for me to imagine the people that I knew and work with, being penalized for making jokes. I was just in awe of what Bassem and his team were doing."

But Tickling Giants was a story that was destined to take on a dark turn. Youssef became an internationally renowned figure in April 2013, after an arrest warrant was issued following accusations that he had insulted Morsi and the Islamic faith. The final straw came when Youssef mocked Morsi's use of English when he garbled the message to not drink and drive as "gas and alcohol don't mix." The charges were eventually dropped, but the plug was pulled on Al Bernameg twice, as first Egyptian broadcaster CBC and then the Saudi-owned MBC Masr bowed down to threats made by the authorities.

Eventually Youssef and his production company found themselves fined over $1 million for mocking the military. For Youssef, this was the final straw, and he decided to flee for San Jose, California. Earlier this year, it was reported that this fine had been annulled. I recently caught up with Youssef in New York City. We spoke about the film and how it was inspiring his new speaking tour and life in exile.

VICE: Was agreeing to star in the documentary your way of continuing to fight for democracy in Egypt?
Bassem Youssef: Let me ask you a question: Would you say no if someone says that they want to make a documentary about you? How many people get that offer? So Sara says, "I want to make a documentary about you," and I say, "OK!" But you also have to understand, at that time in 2012, no one could see the future. We were in a good place. As a matter of fact, I said, "It might be a bit boring, but yeah come along." Maybe the pinnacle will be Jon Stewart coming to my show, or me going onto his show again, that's it. Nobody imagined that my show would be so influential, that the stakes would be that high, or that the risks would change.

You started by making a YouTube show. Did you imagine it would be so successful? You're a doctor, what made you think that you could do political commentary?
I didn't see myself as a star or anything. I was a normal kid. I was a nerd, basically. My friend Tariq, who I had known for about seven years at that time, came to me. He thought whenever I would be in a setting that I would bring people together, and they would listen to me.

Why was that?
I can say I was a charismatic person. I was a man of the people. I was social. People would talk to me, I would talk to people, but so is maybe half of the population of Earth. I don't think there was anything special about me when I started.

Were you a natural in front of the camera?
Well, when actually I saw the first episodes of myself on YouTube, I could not even stand watching myself for even thirty seconds. Like anything, if you watch anybody when they started their show and see them a few years later, of course it changed. There was a development, an improvement, and an investment.

When was the moment that you knew it could be something bigger?
When I first got my TV deal. That was two months after I started on YouTube. It went very fast, and then the first season was just in a small studio. Then I thought, I want to do this as a live show. I want to do this as Jon Stewart-style, live audience—everything. Everybody laughed at me at that time.

Is there a connection between being a surgeon and being a comedian?
There is a hypothetical connection, which I didn't think about until I read about it. Sarcasm in Greek means to cut through layers, so it is basically the same.

What made you want to go to Tahrir Square?
Everyone went to Tahrir Square to see what the hell was happening. If you are not part of the demonstration, you went a day later. We saw that on TV, and we wanted to see what was happening. Then as a doctor, I went there when we saw the attack on the square. I was with other colleagues in the hospital, and we decided to take our supplies and just go to the square.

Was that a harrowing experience?
It was a new experience. I mean, we were just caught in the moment, and we were treating people. We were having gunshots and stuff flying over our heads. It was bizarre.

When the show made you famous, in the documentary you say fame gave you fear, can you explain that?
Yeah, because this whole thing made me exposed. There was one episode where I said, "I wish I had a different life." It came from the fact that I got myself into something, and I didn't sign [up] for that. I was making jokes, and suddenly everyone wants to get me.

Are you someone who is stubborn?
Maybe persistent—persistent would be a better word to use.

How did you experience life under the regime of President Hosni Mubarak?
I was one of the privileged. We were well-off. We were upper-middle class, what we had seen was not poverty, as much as stagnation and unfairness. Even if it doesn't happen to you directly, you can see it. That's why many of us, even if we were not oppressed, or in jail, or poor, joined the revolution.

Do you think that it was a mistake to get rid of Morsi when Egypt did? Even though he had been running roughshod over the constitution, there was still a chance to see if he would respect democracy and hold another election?
There was no chance. I have to say, what happened was partly to be blamed on so many people. If you start to have a very fundamental, extreme rhetoric and you don't listen, you basically put us into an equation that is us or them. The liberal powers have no power, and there was the army.

Of course, in hindsight, maybe it is a mistake to use the army, but the alternative [to allow Morsi to rewrite the constitution and ban opposition] if they were to cross that line, they would have used the army to do the exact same thing that they are doing now. Because basically it's the lesser of two evils. I don't know which one is the lesser of two evils, because both of them are evil.

How do you feel about the so-called Arab Spring, now that Egypt is again being ruled by a military figure?
It's not a "so-called"—it is an Arab Spring. It is a beginning, and democracy takes time. It is the beginning of something else, and I know that it looks chaotic right now, but it will take time, but it has to start somewhere.

You have this life in America now, but it comes from a position of sadness? How do you feel about your show now?
You know, it's up and down. We tried to do something. Thank God we did the series. It was taken away from us. But they want a castrated humor, and you have the chance to start all over again. As I said in the movie, I chose to respect the program and to be truthful to the message and leave.

It's not a 'so-called' [Arab Spring]—it is an Arab Spring, it is a beginning, and democracy takes time.

You're now working on a new show for Fusion TV on YouTube. This time it's about America politics viewed from a Middle Eastern perspective. Is that because you feel that living in exile, you can no longer comment on daily life in Egypt?
I do comment on my social media, but the fact that to do a show on Egypt, about Egypt, from outside the country, I said at the moment, "No, I can't do that. It would be like being outside and throwing rocks."

When I comment on social media, this is my personal opinion, but to have a production is a totally different story. It would take a lot of commitment to do it from the outside and be about the Middle East.

You also are engaged in speaking tours, and have just done a show in London, New York, and Los Angeles. Where do you see that going?
The idea is that I want to develop my story into a theatrical story. It's like Tickling Giants, but it's not like the movie. Basically I'm showing how the media manipulates the people, how the Islamic media, the military media, and the liberal media are all the same and using exactly the same narrative. I do this comparison between them. So instead of making it a rigid thought, it's more interactive. It's keynotes and presentations and videos. At the moment, it's very basic, and I'm sure when the book comes, it will have more ideas.

Follow Kaleem Aftab on Twitter.

Bassem Youssef is making a web series The Democracy Handbook for Fusion. He is also at work on a book, also titled Tickling Giants, to be published in 2017.