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What It’s Like Being The Jon Stewart Of The Arab World

Bassem Youssef uses Daily Show-style satire to criticize the Egyptian government. With 30 million viewers and counting, he says he’s not scared.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, many protestors took to YouTube. Most posts were long, angry rants from anonymous users. But from the noise emerged Bassem Youssef, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has become, for lack of a better term, the Jon Stewart of the Arab world.

Youssef’s first video, filmed on March 8, 2011, was recorded at a desk in his laundry room. With its mix of politics and humor, though, his sparsely produced YouTube channel quickly gained some 5 million viewers, eventually migrating from YouTube to mainstream Egyptian television. Now, about 30 million viewers tune in on Friday nights to see his one-hour show, El Bernameg (The Program), which is filmed in front of a live audience. (It is still available on YouTube as well.)

The show shares much in common with the Daily Show, using similar graphics, a familiar set, live correspondents, and occasional muppets. In the right light, Youssef can even look a bit like Stewart.

That said, there is one tremendous difference between what Stewart and Youssef do: danger.

BuzzFeed sat down with Youssef over brunch at the Four Seasons during South By Southwest.

With English Subtitles.

BuzzFeed: A lot of our readers know you from your appearance on the Daily Show. You talked about death threats and joked about how your show might not be around when you got back to Egypt. Are you [often] nervous about what could happen to you?

Youssef: I’m not nervous about lawsuits or death threats because I am a big believer in fate. Whatever is written in your fate you get delivered, whether good or bad. Two years ago I didn’t have any of this and now I’m here.

I’m more nervous about not delivering a good show. The biggest asset and protection from any threat in society is the support of people, and you get that with giving them a good quality production. That is how you make them fall in love with you. We are protected by the quality of work.

Does using satire protect you in terms of speaking out?

Definitely. Humor goes a long way. Right now there are a lot of angry, aggressive people on television. But even people who hate me watch the show, even if just for the entertainment value.

Are you worried you could be taken you off the air?

If they take me off television, I will put the show online. The internet is stronger than anybody. They can close down the whole channel and it doesn’t matter.

There were lawsuits filed against you for making fun of President Mohamed Morsi—who filed them?

I say this very sarcastically: “These are patriotic citizens who felt very annoyed and very affected to see me ridiculing the president or the clerics from the right wing.”

Who were they really?

There are the people who say that this is the same tactic used by the ex-regime, of [using] your own minions to do some projects, but we don’t know. I can’t point fingers.

Second season, episode one, with English Subtitles.

Did the lawsuits cause you any problems?

In a democratic country people will try to shut you down whether legally or otherwise. And they keep trying. We keep fighting back so there is no problem.

You have said that it is difficult to cover really bloody, violent events because it’s hard to joke about tragedy, yet you still address them. Is there anything that is totally off limits?

You can’t trash someone’s religion. Even if I see someone’s religious belief [that] is totally ridiculous, that is his belief. When they use it to affect political life, that is where we speak out. There are some foundations in any community that are off limits. Jon Stewart can’t trash soldiers fighting overseas. Even if he thinks they aren’t doing a good job, he attacks the politics behind the military. You want to shock but not alienate people.

(At this point in the interview, Youssef, who gets celeb treatment on the streets in Egypt, notices Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the nearby breakfast buffet. Excited and distracted, he takes a break from the interview to go shake JGL’s hand.)

You have said you think things will get worse in Egypt before they get better. Is that true for the media, too?

The media will be the only one that flourishes because there are too many events going on. People are too worried. There are lot of attacks and trials, but people need to continue to speak out. Freedom of speech can be constricted when people censor themselves. If you tone it done, everyone else will follow.

What are Americans’ biggest misunderstandings about situation in Egypt?

That it is Islamic versus secular. I am a devout Muslim — textbook Muslim — while not the version in American textbooks. It is a struggle between those who seek justice and fairness and the batshit rhetorical people. It is people who are abusing religion against people who want to put religion in its right place.

You invited Jon Stewart to appear on your show. Has he accepted the invitation?

That is classified.

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