In a move that doesn't bode well for freedom of expression in Egypt, popular Egyptian television host Bassem Youssef announced on Monday that he will be permanently taking his satirical show El-Bernameg (The Program) off the air.
During a press conference held at his studio, Youssef — a cardiac surgeon turned entertainer who is known as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” for his blend of comedy and hard news — said that the channel MBC Misr had been pressured to drop the show. He told journalists that he was worried about the safety of his family and “tired of struggling,” adding that he and his staff had turned down offers to broadcast the show from outside Egypt because it would damage its credibility.
At the conclusion of the press conference, Youssef thanked the El-Bernameg team and invited staff members onto the stage, where they gathered around him as he held a sign that said “The End.” Some later broke down in tears outside the studio.
Hassem Youssef appeared on The Daily Show last April.
The decision to scrap El-Bernameg was privately announced to staff last Wednesday, a person who has been monitoring the show told VICE News.
Youssef began his entertainment career after the fall of long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011 with a newscast named The B+ Show that went viral on YouTube. El-Bernameg was first televised by Egypt’s ONTV channel and then by the CBC network, where it reached some 40 million viewers before it moved to MBC Misr.
MBC Misr had previously said that the show would be suspended until May 30 so that “Egyptian voters’ orientation and public opinion won’t be influenced” ahead of the presidential election that took place last week. It was a move widely seen as an attempt to keep Youssef from mocking Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt's former defense minister and next president.
Youssef did not specify who had been pushing MBC Misr to stop airing the show, but the cancellation will concern free speech advocates. His was one of the few widely broadcast anti-establishment viewpoints in a country dominated by loudly pro-government media.
Jon Stewart appeared on El-Bernameg last June.
It’s not the first time the show has run into trouble. CBC suddenly shelved El-Bernameg last November, minutes ahead of an episode’s broadcast. The country’s top prosecutor had received a number of complaints about the show beforehand, including that Youssef portrayed Egypt as a “dallying woman who betrays her husband with military men.”
In February, the general prosecutor investigated still more complaints against Youssef, including that he insulted the army, the “will of the Egyptian people,” and symbols of Egypt. The objections claimed that Youssef’s jibes had jeopardized the stability of the country.
Youssef has lambasted conservatives and liberals alike, as well as both Islamists and the military — meaning that he managed to broadly piss off Egyptian elites. His humor was the focus of an investigation during the administration of former president Mohamed Morsi, whom Youssef had lampooned before his removal from office by the army. Youssef was accused of insulting Islam as well as Morsi. Authorities issued a warrant for his arrest early last year and he was briefly held in custody before posting bail and receiving a fine.
His criticism of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood helped turn public sentiment against the former president, which in turn helped encourage a coup by the military — which Youssef now appears to have fallen afoul of. It also earned him last year's Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In his acceptance speech, Youssef noted that “the same people who defended our freedom a few months ago as I was taken for questioning on accounts of blasphemy, insulting the president, and threatening national security are now quite indifferent when I am faced with charges like disturbing the peace, grand treason, and, of course, the gift that keeps on giving: threatening national security.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists was dismayed by Youssef’s announcement.
“A series of Egyptian governments have tried and failed to silence Bassem Youssef,” Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, told VICE News. “The fact that he now chooses to censor himself is a resounding vote of no confidence in the likelihood that the next administration will support and foster freedom of expression.”
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck