Bassem Youssef and the Lie That Is Freedom in Post-coup Egypt

10/31/2013 07:07 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

After the tumult of a military coup this summer that saw hundreds of protesters gunned down in the streets of Cairo, the arrest of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the rescinding of his constitution, a sense of normalcy returned this week to television screens across the country.

It took the form of Al Bernameg, the satirical sketch show written and presented by Dr. Bassem Youssef, known in the mainstream media as "Egypt's John Stewart." Youssef rose to prominence during Morsi's year-long tenure, when the comedian was among several critics of the Muslim Brotherhood administration to see the inside of a court room on antiquated charges of "insulting the president." Although the satirist was subsequently cleared of all charges, Morsi and his inner circle obviously never saw the funny side of Youssef's show.

But the ousted Islamist president isn't the only authority to have a sense of humor failure when it comes to Al Bernameg. Hours after the new season hit the airwaves, Youssef was hit with charges of insulting the interim president Adly Mansour, and -- potentially far more gravely for Youssef -- current defence minister and de facto leader of post-coup Egypt, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Youssef seems to have misspoke during a section lampooning "the hypocrisy, deification, pharoahisation and the repetition of the mistakes of the past 30 or even 60 years" -- a clear reference to Sisi's soaring popularity that has seen state-run editorials comparing him to a deity and had his face imprinted on chocolates.

It would be easy to take Youssef's satire as a consistent critique on those who hold sway, a uniform rebuke of the missteps of power holders, be they Islamist like the Muslim Brotherhood or military men such as Sisi. Certainly, some hold him up as a beacon of free speech taking on successive autocratic regimes. This is unfortunately not the case.

Youssef had been a consistent supporter of the coup. He backed the forcible removal of Morsi, declaring himself "very glad" with the putsch. As news reports were trickling in that dozens of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had been shot dead by security forces, Youssef tweeted that the entire incident amounted to nothing more than "blood for publicity" and blamed the organisation itself for its supporters being murdered. It's worth pointing out that those dead protesters -- and the hundreds of their ilk that successive massacres perpetrated by the army and police produced -- were also exercising their right to freedom of expression.

In a July article a week or so after the coup, Youssef responded to criticism from anti-coup groups of the shutting down of TV channels and the arrest of numerous journalists at the hands of the junta:

Yes, in a perfect world, shutting down channels and isolating leaderships is wrong and a violation of freedoms. But, my dear, you were not living in a perfect world.

And, in an article publicising the imminent return of Egypt's favorite comedy show, Youssef, while somewhat prefiguring the bother he'd go on to experience if he criticized Sisi also addressed the systematic hounding of journalists, storming of news outlets and the rounding up and banning of the Muslim Brotherhood's senior command structure by lamenting how "the raw material [for satire] has decreased."

So while Youssef is hardly the martyr to freedom of expression he is made out to be, does any of this justify charges brought against him for "insulting" anyone? Of course not. Youssef was merely exercising what ought to be his inalienable right to say what's on his mind -- even if what is on his mind sometimes amounts to working out ways to justify the shooting of protesters.

To return once again to that fateful night of July 3, one of the principal reasons so many Egyptians cheered the tanks out on to the street was the belief -- sincere or otherwise -- that whatever sort of government arose from the coup would be freer and more democratic than the Muslim Brotherhood it usurped.

Then the massacres started, and, while many turned away in revulsion, other so-called "Liberals" and "revolutionaries" sought ways to blame the protesters for getting shot, rather than state security for shooting them.

The sad fact in post-coup Egypt is that many people would sooner speak out in support of a man accused of insulting the military than in solidarity with those protesters the military murdered.

It is to be hoped that these ludicrous charges against Youssef are dropped and he can return to "insulting" whomever he wants. Such freedom of expression is a luxury the dead of Egypt's coup no longer have.