Egypt's "Jon Stewart" made fun of the corrupt government and was forced to flee

Earlier this week we went to see a Los Angeles screening of Tickling Giants followed by a Q&A with Bassem Youssef, the subject of the film. The evening was presented by Ziya Tong's Black Sheep.

Bassem Youssef, often called the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” was a prominent heart surgeon who became the creator and host of the Egyptian late-night comedy TV show Al-Bernameg (“The Show”), which began as an immensely popular YouTube channel. The live network show revolved around Bassem’s use of satire and sarcastic humor towards the corrupt and oppressive Egyptian government. As the only program on Egyptian television concerned with free speech and the voice of the people, “The Show” quickly rose in popularity and attracted 30 million viewers per show, significantly more than the 2 million who tuned in nightly to The Daily Show. Even though Bassem and the team behind the show were constantly living in fear that their jokes would put them in danger, they bravely continued to produce a show that criticized authority and the country’s politics. The satirical program ran from 2011-2014, until Egypt’s oppressive military regime made it impossible for the show to continue.

Tickling Giants is a documentary based on Bassem Youssef, “The Show”, and their role in Egyptian culture. The film provides a detailed view of how Youssef “finds creative, non-violent ways to protect free speech and fight a president who abuses his power.

During the Q&A with Youssef following the documentary, Youssef shared experiences and advice not given in the documentary. When asked how the United States may be able to help Egypt, Youssef spoke about how change is a slow-moving, generational process. Following this answer, one woman asked how the United States can avoid an oppressive government and harmful media. Youssef explained that the U.S. has been practicing democracy for hundreds of years, but Egypt only had a three-year window where free speech and democracy could exist. Given its history, Egypt will likely remain under authoritarian government for the foreseeable future, but “The Show” proved that progress and equality are possible. As Youssef casually joked, “Egypt is North Korea with pyramids.” As for media and freedom in the United States, Youssef suggested not to focus on changing people's deeply rooted ideologies, but to encourage more advocates of equality and free speech to vote.

Bassem Youssef now lives in Los Angeles and is unsure of what would happen if he returns to Egypt. He believes that exile is a state of mind and that Los Angeles is his new home, despite having to start his career from scratch.