Laugh Like an Egyptian

At one of the most critical moments in post-revolution Egypt and in the throes of a political tsunami tearing the country apart I found myself laughing uncontrollably.

I was watching the season premiere of Bassem Youssef's satirical news show "Al Bernameg" (The Program) which has just decamped from one 'secular' privately owned Egyptian TV channel to another. Since his debut in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising the heart surgeon turned TV host has come to be known for his ability to make some of the most contentious issues in Egypt side-splittingly funny.

I have to admit it was a welcome relief to be laughing. The latest round of tumult -- which has descended into ugly and deadly street battles -- following the president's shock decision to put himself above the law and grant himself legislative carte blanche has left little room for laughs.

President Morsi and his Islamist supporters say he had no other choice but to assume these sweeping powers given the obstructionism of other political actors. The president insists the powers are only temporary. But the move unleashed a ferocious backlash, both from the street and from state institutions who came under assault. With pent up anger and frustration boiling over, the splintered non-Islamist and revolutionary groups quickly united in opposition and descended -- in their millions or thousands depending on which camp's spin -- upon the streets of Egypt. We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore, they were saying.

But if Egyptians are known for one thing, it's their humour and ability to make light of even the darkest most despairing situations. Youssef excels at this, and being mindful of the responsibility that goes along with having such a visible media platform, he is not only making light of things but also openly questioning authority and holding elected leaders to account.

When I spoke to Youssef, shortly after taping his upcoming episode, he told me "I don't criticize, I satirize. I make fun, which is even more shocking. Whoever is in authority will have to deal with our program."

In a country where the lines are blurred between politics and religion Youssef says he gets a lot of heat from Islamists whom he considers Egypt's right wingers.

"Our right wing here in Egypt is different from the U.S. because people here are more emotional about religion, they can't differentiate between politics and religion. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are the right wing, I don't deal with them as religious groups but as political groups," he said.

It's no secret that 'Al Bernameg' models itself on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, in fact Youssef himself appeared as a guest on The Daily Show earlier this year and told me 'Jon Stewart is my idol.' The new season takes its cues from Stewart's satirical swipes at Fox News coverage and the trademark segments using politicians' own words against them to show contradiction. The show is also taped in front of a live studio audience, a rarity in Egyptian TV.

In his opening gambit, Youssef takes aim at his fellow hosts who share the airwaves on CBC TV. Mercilessly making fun of some of the most well known faces in Egyptian TV, he started an on-air spat -- a la Jon Stewart vs. Bill O'Reilly -- with Emad Adib, a veteran media personality who hosts a talk show on the same channel. Both presenters used their shows to take swipes at each another, with Adib saying that Youssef had crudely tried to prove how much freedom CBC was giving him, but that he had crossed the line.

Youssef also made a point of poking fun at himself for jumping ship from the left leaning OnTV, seen as pro-revolution, to the CBC channel, perceived by some to represent the 'felool' or old regime viewpoint. Bags of cash with dollar signs and other props were used on set to mock his fat paycheck.

In so doing, Youssef appears to be sending a message that he will not shy away from criticizing his own employers -- including the man who signs his paycheck -- and that he is not beyond ridicule himself. He titled the opening segment of the first show "The return of the prodigal son."

He's banking that will give him leeway to hold the president (a once sacred figure in Mubarak's era) and his Islamist backers to account and make it OK to unleash a deluge of satire on them. And that is precisely what he is doing, to great comic effect.

The first episode included a 21 minute segment dissecting the Muslim Brotherhood's "Renaissance Project" on which President Morsi ran his campaign -- a political and economic plan that is big on goals and rhetoric but short on specifics and detail.

Using sound bytes from members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi surrogates, the show highlights the vagueness of the plan and the contradictions regarding when it was first imagined: We started it back in 1992 when we were in prison one Brotherhood member says. It's the journey of the Muslim Brotherhood since its foundation 80 years ago another points out. The current presidential spokesperson, Yasser Ali, is seen on camera saying the plan dates back to the 'Islamic Revival Movement' in 1798, while another says it is still a work in progress.

The second episode of 'Al Bernameg', scheduled to air on Friday November 30 as protests broke out against Morsi's decree, was abruptly postponed. At 10:05 p.m. that evening, less than an hour before the show was due to be broadcast, Youssef made the announcement on Twitter saying "I'm personally very angry and I promise to broadcast the episode as soon as possible."

The full episode was posted online three days later with the consent of the broadcaster and has received close to a million views so far. In it, he devotes most of the show to a brutally funny takedown of Morsi, describing the president as 'Morsi the uniter of powers.' It is a reference to the Pharaoh Mina 'the uniter of the two realms' who united Upper and Lower Egypt to create one kingdom in the year 3200 BC. The joke being that Egypt has become bitterly divided under Morsi's rule. A mock up of the president in full King Tut regalia completes the pun.

Using a variety of montages, graphics, sound effects and props, the half hour segment -- which has yet to be broadcast on TV -- makes frequent use of words like dictator, pharaoh, king, and absolute power. If Morsi wanted to marry your wife, there's nothing you could do about it, one commentator says.

The show also makes fun of a number of speeches made by the president, calling him 'Super Morsi.' The superhero title (complete with DC comics font) is superimposed on an image of the president holding his jacket wide open in front of crowds in Tahrir, a famous gesture shortly after his election intended to show his fearlessness of appearing in public without a bullet proof vest.

One segment features a series of statements by Morsi cross-cut with similar statements from ousted president Hosni Mubarak. But perhaps most damningly the suspended episode uses clips from Morsi's TV interviews during the election campaign. When asked how he would respond if, after being elected, people went out and marched against him, Morsi answered "This will not happen, because the president, if that's me, will act in accordance with the will of the people. And if he fails to do so, I will be the first to go down and follow the will of the people." In another clip Morsi is seen saying "I want the people to rise up against me if I don't respect the law or the constitution."

The postponement of the broadcast of 'Al Bernameg' came at a time when a dozen private newspapers and TV channels, including the one that employs Youssef, went on strike in protest at the rushed constitution that they believe leaves the door open for curbs on freedom of expression and media.

Fans of the show have launched an online campaign on CBC's Facebook page demanding the return of the show with comments on the page saying we want Bassem, we love Bassem.

Youssef told me the third episode, scheduled to air on Friday December 7, will push the envelope even further. "The episode will be very shocking," he said. "The studio audience was laughing but they couldn't believe I was doing this, they were shocked. This is a first. It's shocking and quite heavy."

Youssef and his producers are tight lipped about the details but I was told the episode will tackle the recent million-march marches carried out by both the Muslim Brotherhood and by those protesting against the constitutional declaration.

There is no doubt that Al Bernameg was groundbreaking -- and hugely successful -- in its first outing on OnTv, but now that we have an elected post-revolution president, and the show is taking direct aim at the man himself, the bar has risen significantly and so have the stakes.