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Bassem Youssef, “The Jon Stewart of Egypt,” Moves to U.S. & Begins Satirizing Election Season

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Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef joins us in Cleveland, where he too is covering the Republican convention. His former show was known as “The Daily Show” of the Arab world for its satire of politics in Egypt and the Middle East. The program “El Bernameg” was launched after former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in the 2011 uprising. It became the most popular TV series in Egypt’s history, with as many as 30 million views per episode. During Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, “El Bernameg” came under increasing pressure, and in 2013 an arrest warrant was issued for Youssef for allegedly insulting Islam and Morsi. Youssef was interrogated and subsequently released on bail, but the pressure continued under the next regime, and in 2014 he announced he was taking the program off the air, just days after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president. Once he could no longer make fun of Egyptian politics, he moved to the U.S. to satirize American politics. His new show, “Democracy Handbook,” airs on Fusion.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this is “Breaking with Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.” I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. Next week, we’ll be in Philadelphia for the week. Both weeks, we’ve expanded our broadcast to two hours every day.

We’re joined right now by a man described as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt.” Maybe Jon Stewart is the Bassem Youssef of the United States. Who knows? But this is Bassem Youssef. His show was known as “The Daily Show” of the Arab world for its satire of politics in Egypt and the Middle East. The program was launched after former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in the 2011 uprising. It became the most popular TV series in Egypt’s history, with as many as 30 million views per episode.

During Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, the program came under increasing pressure, and in 2013 an arrest warrant was issued for Youssef for allegedly insulting Islam and Morsi. Youssef was interrogated and subsequently released on bail, but the pressure continued under the next regime, and in 2014 Bassem Youssef announced he was taking the program off the air, just days after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president. Bassem Youssef has now started a new comedy program, but it focuses on the United States. In the opening to the show, Democracy Handbook, Youssef explains why he left Egypt.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: As-salamu alaykum, everyone. My name is Bassem Youssef. In my native Egypt, I was a surgeon, until the Arab Spring, when I realized my country itself had fallen ill. So I created a comedy show to help the nation heal. The people liked it, but the government, not so much. And before things got worse, I left for the land of the free. Now I can learn from the best. After all, this is the United States of America, the greatest democracy on Earth. Right?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are joined by Bassem Youssef. His new show, Democracy Handbook, airs on Fusion.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to see you.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: I’m very happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, a doctor—a cardiologist turned comedian?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Cardiac surgeon.

AMY GOODMAN: Cardiac surgeon.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yes. And I was actually to be here in Cleveland, if everything went as planned, because I was accepted into a pediatric heart surgery fellowship six years ago. And the revolution happened, I did my show, and I never came.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about that show and what happened to it.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Oh, my show in Egypt? Well, you know, it started on the internet and went into a small TV show, then went into a full-blown live—live show on theater. And then I had trouble with both regimes, under the Islamists or the military government. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of General Sisi, of President Sisi?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Oh, he’s the most democratic president in the history of Egypt, of course. I mean, unprecedented democracy, unprecedented liberties, as he always described Egypt. And this is why we have so many people who had their shows canceled, they’re either living in exile or in prison. Maybe he has a different version of liberty and freedom. But I’m sure he’s enjoying it.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did you feel you had to leave Egypt?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, there was increasing pressure on everyone. And there was this case between me and my—the previous channel who canceled the show. And suddenly we were hit by an arbitration verdict, whose—which was totally unfair and was totally politicized. And I found myself like owing them 100 million pounds, although they are the one who shut down the show. And, of course, the thing is, in the Middle East, they will never come after you because of—because of like your freedom of speech. They’ll find something else, you know, like getting Al Capone for taxes. So, what happened was that, like, I know that, like, the clock was ticking, and I would be soon put on either like a no-fly list or maybe even more. And when I left, I—looking back, this is actually what happened to so many people who had problems leaving the country, coming into the country. And I didn’t just want to be under the mercy of somebody telling me that you can’t leave.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what are you doing here at the RNC?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, first of all, we had—I’m having a relationship now with Fusion, where—with the Democracy Handbook being released. And then—

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Fusion is.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Fusion is a TV channel, part of Univision and ABC. And they—they are now—I think they like what I did with Democracy Handbook, and they want me to cover the RNC as the “Arab correspondent.”

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to an excerpt of Democracy Handbook. In this episode, Bassem talks to Donald Trump supporters in Georgia.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 1: I believe that he loves America.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 2: Well, he’s definitely energetic. He’s electric.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 3: I think that you can depend on what he tells you, that he’ll do what he tells you.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 4: Trump, 100 percent.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 5: He’s a loudmouth, and I think we need that.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 6: Yeah!

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Do you understand exactly how is he going to make America great again?

TRUMP SUPPORTER 7: Uh, I might not understand fully, but I like what I do hear for the most part. So—

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Like what?

TRUMP SUPPORTER 7: I mean, he’s—he’s literally saying he’s going to make America great again.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: And you like that?

TRUMP SUPPORTER 7: I love that.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 8: I think he can help get this country back on the financial road.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: So, do you think that he’s successful financially?

TRUMP SUPPORTER 8: Yes, very much so.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Tell us some of his successful businesses.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 8: I cannot. I just know that every businessman fails, goes bankrupt, like several times.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: He doesn’t answer to anybody.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 9: That’s right.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: He doesn’t obey anybody.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 9: That’s right.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Nobody can hold him accountable.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 9: That’s right.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yeah? That’s amazing.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 10: I like Donald Trump because he is a very intelligent person.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: What has he done or said that made you think that he’s smart?

TRUMP SUPPORTER 10: Well, I watched him on The Apprentice.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 8: Yes.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 10: Yes, I am.

TRUMP SUPPORTER 8: Yes.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: That’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Bassem Youssef talking to Trump supporters in Georgia. Talk about that experience.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, when I went there, I mean, people, of course, were mesmerized by Donald Trump, Donald Trump’s appearance. But I find it is the same echo chamber that we find—that I find in the Middle East. You know, people are just like repeating the same sound bites without even thinking it through. When somebody tells me, “We want to make the military great again,” and in the same exact sentence tells me, “We need to reduce federal spending,” I don’t know how is—how is that possible? And when he tells me, like, “We need to make America great—the military great again,” I tell him, “How many more countries do you want to invade?” It is just like—it doesn’t make sense. And I remember—I think one of the most memorable moments for me, when the—I think it was the governor or the mayor, the guy who appeared before Donald Trump, and he said—he was talking to the crowd. It was like, “If he—if Donald Trump didn’t do anything other than building the wall, would you still vote for him?” And it was like, “Yeah!”

So, this is the whole—this is a whole campaign based on fear and xenophobia. It doesn’t matter. Do you think like—so, when I see like the news cycles going and saying, “Oh, look, Donald Trump said this, Donald Trump said that, his wife plagiarized this, plagiarized that,” do you think it does—it makes any difference in these supporters? No. I mean, if he said, “I have absolutely no—no plan. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do with the economy, with foreign policy,” it doesn’t make any difference. I mean, we had a—we had the president who said, like, “I have no—no plan for anything, and I’m just going to be president.” It’s like, “Yeah, go, because of—because of Egypt, because of every”—it’s the same thing. It’s the same exact thing. People are just voting out of emotions. People voting are just out of fear, and that’s it.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Democracy Handbook. In this episode, Bassem Youssef visits a Muslim-free gun store.

ANDY HALLINAN: I declared Florida Gun Supply a Muslim-free zone as a direct response to political correctness.

I’m Andy with Florida Gun Supply, and if you want to make your home safe from ISIS, all you need is one of our Muslim-free zone signs.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: So, what’s the best thing about being Muslim-free?

ANDY HALLINAN: We sold a bunch of really great stuff. For instance, we came up with our bumper stickers. It says, “Warning: This car is a MFZ.” Now, we didn’t necessarily want to spell out “Muslim-free zone,” because that would be car bomb territory. Right?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: That would be the only reason, yeah.

ANDY HALLINAN: And we produced our ISIS hunting permits, that says no tagging required, no bagging limit.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: That’s so funny.

ANDY HALLINAN: We worked with a company to create the Mohammed targets, realistic-looking jihadis. But we taped the San Bernardino shooters’ faces on them, and they started selling even better.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: There’s a Mohammed target for $3. Mohammed with crotch shot.

ANDY HALLINAN: For five bucks, yeah.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Let’s face it: Hate sells.

AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re going to continue on the theme of guns with Bassem Youssef. In this episode, Bassem visits a gun show in Florida.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: As long as you’re of age, you’ve never done more than one year in jail, you’re not deemed crazy or drunk at the time of purchase, getting a gun in America is a breeze, especially at gun shows, which happen every weekend everywhere in America, with stuff for the whole family—moms, kinky moms, babies, hyperactive preteens, and even something for your anti-Semitic uncle. How many guns do you have?

GUN OWNER 1: I have eight.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Eight guns.

GUN OWNER 2: I have a [bleep] ton of guns. I spend all my UFC money on guns.

GUN OWNER 3: I have one 22 and 20-gauge.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Americans bought over 1.7 million guns in September 2015 alone. But why? What do you use your guns for?

GUN OWNER 4: Oh, mainly just target shooting.

GUN OWNER 3: I’m a hunter.

GUN OWNER 1: Personal defense.

GUN OWNER 2: It’s about having the right to protect yourself against another human being or animal.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GUN OWNER 2: Or like crazy bears that come at you and stuff like that. Like, it’s all legal.

AMY GOODMAN: And we can’t stop. We want to continue with the Democray Handbook. This one is Bassem Youssef in Flint, Michigan, speaking with Beulah Walker of the Detroit Water Brigade, asking if the water crisis is a way to stop immigrants from coming to the city.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, let’s talk about the problems that Flint has. It has unemployment, crime, water crisis. Does it have illegal immigration problem?

BEULAH WALKER: No, it does not.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: So, people don’t want to immigrate to Flint?

BEULAH WALKER: No, no one wants to. I wouldn’t.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Do you think this is a kind of a silver lining, keeping people out? Where I come from, we’re just much more straightforward. We just like go and bomb the whole city down.

BEULAH WALKER: That’s horrible.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yeah. It’s faster.

AMY GOODMAN: That is an excerpt of Democracy Handbook. So, what you’re doing with the series—you’re traveling around the country.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yes. And the thing is, I try to find out some of the topics that could resonate in both worlds. So, for example, when you talk about religion, this is supposed to be a secular country with total separation between church and state. Back in the Middle East, we are being criticized that we have religion interfering in everything. Here, it seems that it’s also—it’s interfering in everything, but it’s OK, because it seems to be the right religion. When you have like the next vice president identifying himself as Christian first before everything, that goes against the Constitution and all of the secularism and all of the separation between state and church.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you certainly know when both go together, in 2013 accused of insulting then-President Mohamed Morsi and insulting Islam, a warrant issued for your arrest. You turned yourself in, were questioned for six hours, before being released on bail. A blast from the past now. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart sent a message to Morsi following your detention.

JON STEWART: So, Bassem Youssef pokes fun of your hat and your lack of promised democratic reforms. What are you worried about? You’re the president of Egypt. You have an army. He’s got puns and a show. You have tanks and planes. We should know: We still have the receipts. Look, silencing a comedian doesn’t qualify you to be president of Egypt, just president of NBC. I mean, wooh! And I got to tell you something, talk about a once-proud empire.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have it, Jon Stewart, when he was doing The Daily Show, talking about the Jon Stewart of Egypt, Bassem Youssef, who’s come to this country to talk about, well, democracy there, where he comes from in Egypt, and democracy here. And what is your conclusion?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, my conclusion is that you still have a great democratic process here. I mean, but my show is just—can serve as a warning to tell you that, you know, there are certain practices that’s happening here that’s not far off of what I’ve seen in my part of the world. The xenophobia, the racism, the ignorance and the hate is basically increasing everywhere, not just in the United States. It’s like—I think it’s kind of like the extreme right-wing mentality is winning crowned every day, out of fear, and it’s scary. It’s kind of like I’m telling people, “Guys, we’re the prequel. Don’t do that.”

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think about the grassroots movements that are pushing back—I mean, every day, from Black Lives Matter to Occupy?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, these are great movements. The problem is that they are up against huge corporations, institutions and entities that basically are turning this democracy into an oligarchy. And they are underfunded. They are undersupported. And I wish they—they are gaining traction, but I hope they can be up against those humongous, very powerful institutions. It’s an uphill fight, and it’s not—it’s not easy. But at the end of the day, you guys kind of stood against the British Empire, so, who knows?

AMY GOODMAN: And Egypt, where it is now?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Well, I will say it’s like a George Orwellian 1984 novel, but it’s not even well written.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Bassem Youssef, I thank you for being with us, Egyptian comedian, satirist, known as “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” his show known as “The Daily Show” of the Arab world. Once he could no longer make fun of Egyptian politics, he moved to the U.S. to satirize American politics. His new show, Democracy Handbook, airs on Fusion, and you can see it on YouTube, as well.

Special thanks to all the folks at Denver Open Media and our team here at Democracy Now!, to Denis Moynihan and John Hamilton and Sam Alcoff and Laura Gottesdiener, to Deena Guzder and Nermeen Shaikh, as well as Robby Karran and Hany Massoud. Thank you so much to all those that are making this broadcast possible. Thank you, as well, to Carla Wills. I’m Amy Goodman. Go to our website at democracynow.org for both hours of Democracy Now! here at the Republican convention and then again at the Democratic convention next week.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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