CAIRO — It was the cry heard across Egypt’s Twitter feeds. Minutes after comedian Bassem Youssef’s show began airing Friday, the signal was deliberately jammed and the first half of the show was almost impossible to watch across the Arab world. The hashtag #تشويش (“jamming”) began trending in Egypt.
Youssef has been targeted by criminal charges and lawsuits in the past in an attempt to shut down his wildly popular satirical show El Bernameg, but this was the first time it was physically disrupted in this way.
A group called the “Egyptian Cyber Army” has claimed responsibility for jamming the show, but little is known about it. Its Facebook page is covered with statements praising the Egyptian military and criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood. It remains unclear whether the group is tied to the military or acting independently.
The Egyptian distributors of Youssef’s show say they are investigating who was behind the attack, which they believe was carried out by “serious players” looking to stop the popular, albeit controversial, show from airing.
“This is not an easy thing to do. This is expensive and difficult and not many people have the proper equipment,” said Wael Fouad Ahla, chief engineer of a rival Egyptian station El-Maher.
He dismissed rumors that a small group of hackers would be able to effectively jam the signal in multiple parts of the Middle East at the same time.
“You have to be a professional person involved in broadcasting. You can’t buy the equipment you need easily. It is an expensive unit which would cost you $70–$80,000,” Ahla said. “Whoever did this knows how broadcasting works, and he is not limited to regions, he could be based outside of Egypt.”
Many across the Arab world tweeted photos of what the jammed signal looked like.
NileSat, the Egyptian company that is responsible for hosting the MBC Misr channel that airs Youssef’s show, released a statement saying it is investigating the jamming of its satellites.
The company said that there had been multiple attempts to jam the show’s signal in the past, and it has filed a complaint to the International Telecommunication Union. The station said it was doing all possible to stop the signal from being jammed again.
“It is better not to rush to conclusions without waiting for the result of our investigation to determine the source of the problem,” NileSat said in a statement.
Multiple theories have emerged over who was behind the interference in the show’s broadcast, beyond the “Egyptian Cyber Army.” Online, fans have blamed everyone from the military, which owns its own broadcasting equipment and has been targeted by Youssef’s jokes in the past, to Qatar, which many Egyptians charge with supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and vilify as trying to destroy their country.
Although his show has gained a massive following in Egypt — with roughly 8.3 million viewers each week — Youssef has had a tumultuous 12 months. In March 2013 the comedian was charged with insulting Islam and former president Mohamed Morsi. When he returned for his third season in October 2013, his first episode angered many for his jabs at the military ouster of the Morsi government. The second episode was taken off air, and the Egyptian CBC channel terminated his contract.
While Youssef was quickly put back on air by the Saudi-owned MBC Masr station, there have been repeated efforts to stop his show from airing, including multiple lawsuits filed against him.