Egypt’s most well-known comedian is set to return to television on Friday with his satirical “El Bernameg” news program airing for the first time since the ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi, one of the show’s favorite targets. As a vocal liberal critic of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government, Bassem Youssef has long been on the wrong side of Islamists in the country — which, in Egypt’s current political landscape, by default places the comedian on the side of the the military-backed interim government. Youssef has resisted this attempt to pigeonhole his politics and, based on an op-ed he authored earlier this week, indicates that he plans to reserve as much mockery for the country’s current leadership and its supporters as for their predecessors.
Many are already anticipating the opportunity to label Youssef a sell-out (after all, he did set a pretty high bar in his previous criticisms of the Brotherhood) but it’s worth noting that even the attempt to criticize the military leadership is a significant feat given the state of Egypt’s media culture. One of the military’s greatest successes in the wake of the Morsi ouster (aside from its rapid neutralization of the Brotherhood) was its ability to gather nearly every other political faction into its tent along with the enthusiastic support of every prominent non-Islamist media commentator. This polarization and the toxic media culture that has wholeheartedly endorsed the military’s ‘with us or against us’ message has paralyzed the attempts of Egyptians who neither support the Brotherhood nor the current military leadership. Could Bassem’s return signal a new way forward beyond this divisive dynamic?
It is inadvisable to be optimistic about anything in Egypt right now, but Youssef certainly has the platform and the potential to shift the discourse slightly. By amplifying the perspective of those who oppose tyranny — whether of the Islamist or old school military variety — the popular comedian has a unique opportunity to remind the country at large of the seemingly-forgotten goals of its 2011 revolution. Sadly, there is almost no one else with both his high profile and the stated willingness to challenge both sides of this corrosive divide in Egyptian society. And, of course, the desire to stand up to military government, which has already begun to flex its muscles in Youssef’s direction; on Thursday, a court resurrected a Brotherhood-era case against the comedian for “insulting the president,” preemptively sounding off warning bells ahead of his program’s return.
Those with an interest in maintaining the status quo may not be able to counter Youssef’s strong anti-Brotherhood bonafides but they will be certain to find another way to discredit the comedian (perhaps similar to the current campaign against Mohammed ElBaradei, the most prominent liberal defector of the post-coup political order). Whether Youssef is personally able to transcend this dirty political climate is almost irrelevant though — shining a spotlight on it might just be enough for now.