London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has been largely absent from public life since November 2, when the second episode of the third season of his popular weekly television program Al-Barnameg (“The Program”) was cancelled at the last minute by its private host channel, CBC. However, Youssef has come out this week to hit back against “mass hysteria” and governments that demonize their own citizens for political gain in a contentious op-ed published by Egypt’s independent Al-Sharouk newspaper.
Youssef has avoided the public eye since November 2 amid a surprisingly strong public backlash in Egypt against his satirical take on the military and the state of patriotic fervor that has gripped the country since the ouster of his old target, recently ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi. In his first public comments since CBC took him off air, it appears that Youssef has sought to address the general situation in post-Mursi Egypt without explicitly making reference to Egypt at all.
Youssef begins the November 12 op-ed, entitled “Treason to the Rhythm of the Tango,” by making reference to Osvaldo Pugliese, “the most famous tango musician in the world,” and his being viewed as an enemy of the state for opposing military rule in Argentina in the 1970s.
Youssef discussed historical instances of governments oppressing public figures, writing: “Accusations of opposing a regime can easily transform into accusations of conspiring against a regime, which can then develop into accusations of treason and espionage, and finally membership of the fifth column.”
In the last episode of Al-Barnameg aired on CBC, Youssef ridiculed the conspiracy theories raging in Egyptian society around the “fifth column,” particularly those placing him in this camp.
The Al-Sharouk op-ed added: “Regimes try to regain what they have lost by accusing artists, musicians and writers of treason and espionage. This is because they refuse to be led like a herd in a state of mass hysteria caused by those claiming virtue, piety and patriotism.”
Youssef also made reference to McCarthyism, describing the US senator as someone who “manipulated people’s emotions and misused patriotism.” However, he stressed that the blame could not entirely be laid on McCarthy, adding that “there are some forms of fear and concern in every society . . . all that is required is for somebody to incite this and explode it into mass hysteria.”
“Create an enemy, demonize him, drown the people in conspiracy theories, play up public fears, and then attack whomever you will. At this point, people will be ready to attack, and you will won’t need to make any extra effort . . . the angry masses will do the rest,” he added.
A number of lawsuits were raised against Bassem Youssef by ordinary members of the public following the broadcast of the first episode of Al-Barnameg in the post-Mursi era. Lawsuits accused Youssef of defaming the military and “undermining the honor and dignity of Egypt and its people.”
During the contentious episode, Youssef referred to Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi—Egypt’s defense minister—as the “man in charge of Egypt,” in addition to ridiculing the public outpourings of support for the man.
Youssef ended the show by asserting that while he opposes the Muslim Brotherhood and those who seek to use religion to secure their grip on power, he also did not support “fascism in the name of patriotism and national security.”
This is a message that he appeared to reiterate in the Al-Sharouk op-ed, writing: “There is not a huge difference between the practices of a military regime, a religious regime or a fascist regime with a touch of patriotism.”
“Those who claim religious piety are no less aggressive, as they may add accusations of apostasy and enmity of religion to the list,” he added.