CAIRO — As the satirical comedy show Al Bernameg returned to the CBC-TV network May 17 after a three-week hiatus, many Egyptians were shifting uncomfortably in their chairs. While host Bassem Youssef, known as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, has received much praise for being a witty, sarcastic provocateur of Egyptian political events, for some Egyptians he has crossed the line of propriety and respectful sarcasm.
Laila El Hossainy, 47, a Cairo housewife, said, “This program (Al-Bernameg) is so nice. He (Youssef) expresses the reality and some of the truth. Sometimes we feel that he is strange because he uses taboo words. In general, I do not like the ‘too much’ of his style. I don’t think he should be sent to prison, but he should be sent warning letters when he steps over the line.”
While many agree with Youssef’s humorous criticism of President Mohammed Morsi’s government, his plays on words often result in double entendres that transgress Egyptian social norms. In Arabic, the changing of one letter or vowel marking can result in a completely different word with a different meaning. For example, Youssef has played on the socially taboo word, “tikhsi” (تخصي), or castration, by using “tiqsi” (تقصي), or exclusion, while still insinuating castration.
For Shereen Abdel Menem, 48, a researcher at the National Center for Population, “Bassem’s performance reaches and exceeds the limits and boundaries that our families raised us on. I am too bashful and embarrassed to watch the program with my kids, and am too bashful to even it watch it by myself. I think that he should be punished and be put on a trial because he is a bad example for the media.”
Osama Moftah, 28, an employee at an international nongovernmental organization in Cairo, disagreed. “It’s not good to ask Bassem Youssef to change the language of his show because it will change the comedy and the character of the whole show.”
However, he conceded, “I like Al Bernameg, but sometimes when I sit with my mother or my sister, I don’t feel comfortable.” Chuckling, he added, “Everyone is watching this program, but by themselves.”
Youssef, who recently earned a spot on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most-influential people, holds a unique place in Egyptian media. In a sea of talking of heads on the airwaves, he takes on the country’s political situation in the uniquely Egyptian language of comedy.
According to Tarek Radwan, the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, Youssef’s humorous style is hugely important for keeping post-revolutionary political space and social discussion open in spite attempts to close it. The new constitution, drafted by an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, makes it illegal to insult the presidency or the prophets of Islam, and also tasks the state with safeguarding ethics, public morality and public order.
On March 31, Youssef was summoned for an investigation on the orders of Egyptian Prosecutor General Talaat Abdallah. He was accused of insulting the presidency and Islam, both constitutional violations, but eventually released on a bail of 15,000-pounds ( $2,150). On April 6, a Cairo court dismissed the case against Youssef, and on May 2, one of the program’s writers, Khaled Mansour, was also released on bail.
Radwan said he believes that the charges against Youssef were clearly politically motivated. “There are people, the Muslim Brotherhood and their lawyers, who are relying on the moral outrage to this new style, this style that pushes social taboos. They are relying on that outrage in order to punish him and to silence him.”
The legal attacks against Youssef came as an opinion poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera) in early April showed a decline in support for President Morsi. Only 46% of those polled approved of his performance, down from 78% after his first 100 days in office.
Youssef has long been under attack by Islamist television commentators. Sheikh Khaled Abdullah, a TV personality on the Salafist An-Nas channel, is one of Youssef’s fiercest critics, and often resorts to personal insults.
Radwan said, “Since the Islamists gained power and their opinions and voices grew louder with Morsi’s ascension to the presidency, what has come out of their mouth has offered tremendous fodder for Bassem to pick at.”
Furthermore, he attributes Youssef’s use of sexual language as a direct response to the Islamists’ choice of vocabulary.
“I really don’t think he would have gone this route if the Islamist language, or whoever was in power, had taken a different tack. I really do think this is a direct response to the preoccupation that a lot of Islamist politicians have with, well, specifically sex.”
Moftah echoes this sentiment, “If you go to the mosque and listen to the Friday sermon, they love to talk about two things: ablution and sexual promiscuity in Western, liberal societies. But, in my opinion, if you imagine what they describe in the mosque for 10 minutes, it will be worse than watching Bassem Youssef.”
Why those displeased with Al Bernameg cannot just change the channel delves into Egypt’s struggle to find its own balance between individual rights and the social good. Radwan discusses the divide between activists who are calling for individual freedoms, such as freedom of expression, association and religion, and those concerned with community rights — how an individual’s actions impact the community. For the latter, Youssef’s Al Bernameg impacts Egyptian society as a whole, and thus, his language is a crime against the community as a whole.
However, Adel Abdel Sadek, a social media expert with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, finds there to be no conflict between the rights of the community and the individual within Egyptian society. For him, it is a matter of practicing “responsible individual freedom” from which Youssef is deviating.
However, at the societal level, watching the show in mixed company is one of the major factors causing many Egyptians discomfort. The idea of hayaa, or modesty in morals and behavior, often creates a double standard for the behavior of men and women, and thus results in a negative perception of women who laugh at Youssef’s innuendo.
Moftah, who staunchly stands by Youssef’s right to use sexual language, said, “If my sister was laughing loudly at a sexual joke, I mean come on, we haven’t progressed this far yet.”
However, cognizant of the dissonance, he added, “Bassem Youssef is reflecting the underground society in Egypt. If he was saying something that is not in our language, we wouldn’t be laughing. But we are laughing, so this is in our language.”
Co-authored with Abeer Heider. This article was originally written for and published by Al-Monitor on May 19, 2013.