Jihadists, please blow here!

During the Arab Spring, satirist Bassem Youssef was loved and feared. Then he fled the country. Now he′s mocking in America. By Dunja Ramadan

By Dunja Ramadan

Are your new neighbours a bit peculiar? Does the wife wear a headscarf and the husband have a beard and a callous on his forehead from praying? Are they different? Foreign? Let′s say it out loud: are they Muslims? Well, you have every right to be nervous, anyone would understand: terrorism, perception of women and so on. But there′s no need to be. Really and truly.

Bassem Youssef is here to help – or rather, his company, "Jihad Solutions" is. The firm has developed a tool – pocket-sized, user-friendly, great value for money – which Youssef presents in a three-minute online ad: "Breathe Easy". It works like a breathalyser for drink-drivers and grades subjects according to their degree of radicalisation, on a scale from "Likes hummus" to "IS supporter".

According to Youssef, "Breathe Easy" is a product of intensive research and the latest technology. Every time your neighbour, let′s say, wishes death to America, it leaves a footprint in his body′s cells, which release "radical enzymes". "Breathe Easy" gives precise results, "more accurate than a drone strike".

Making a comeback

He′s back, then. Bassem Youssef, the Arab Jon Stewart, a pioneer of political satire, the smash hit of the Arab Spring. When he got too powerful in Egypt for those in power, he fled the country. Now he lives in the U.S. And he′s still doing what he does best: poking fun.

He first found success when Egypt′s long-time president Hosni Mubarak had just been toppled. Youssef, a qualified heart surgeon, started making YouTube videos in the laundry room of his flat in Cairo. He became such an overnight sensation that he was given his own TV programme: "AlBarnameg" ("The Show"). It was a time of unprecedented freedoms and Youssef was its mockingbird. Viewers loved him; the government – each successive Egyptian government – hated him. He survived a military government and the Muslim Brotherhood, but the current military regime cancelled his show.

Deutsche Welle TV logo for ″AlBarnameg″ with the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef (photo: DW)
Satire you could cut with a knife: Bassem Youssef′s hit show "AlBarnameg" ran for three years in Egypt – until it was abruptly cancelled at the end of 2013. A few weeks later it was taken on by the Deutsche Welle Arabic programme. Yet by the summer of 2014 Bassem Youssef himself was ready to throw in the towel – for fear of his own life

So now he lives in Trump Land. Youssef wouldn′t be Youssef if he didn′t recognise the satirical potential in that: "Am I bringing bad luck wherever I go? Am I a dictator magnet?” he asks in his recently-published autobiography "The Revolution for Dummies. Laughing through the Arab Spring".

But what American wants to hear jokes about America from an Egyptian, at a time when even their own satirists are often overtaken by reality? In Arabic, Bassem Youssef attracted 40 million viewers per episode. His English YouTube clips get an average audience of 250,000. All the same: he has found his subject. In his election campaign, Trump railed against Arabs and Muslims. Youssef is both. "I defend myself against Islamophobia and discrimination, but I′m defending people, not a religion," Youssef tells me on the phone from the USA.

A kind of first-aid video for Muslims

After the terrorist attack in Barcelona, he posted the "Muslim Morning After Kit", a kind of first-aid video for Muslims who have to prove their loyalty after a terrorist attack. The kit contains a giant U.S. flag, a T-shirt with "One of the Good Ones" on it, a rucksack patch that says "Just a few books and a laptop" and a photo of the Muslim purchaser with the country singer Toby Keith (Keith wrote "The Angry American" and sang at Trump′s inauguration).

Youssef now has his own show on YouTube called "Democracy Handbook". He travels around the United States, getting to know the "greatest democracy on earth," going into gun stores that prohibit Muslims and sell bumper stickers that say "Muslim-free zone", and speaking Arabic through a megaphone to exercise his "right to free speech".

His form of resistance has changed, says Youssef, but his heart is still in his former homeland. "If I′m successful in the USA, I can turn people′s attention to what′s going on in Egypt," – that is his hope.

When he was still broadcasting from Cairo, Egyptians didn′t just tune in to laugh; they wanted to check whether the programme actually still existed. As Youssef himself admits, in a society programmed to say ′yes sir′, he stood up to the system and said ′no′ with a smile, a wink and a nod.

"AlBarnameg" – a short democratic experiment

Now he′s gone and Egyptians are once more saying "yes, sir" to a government that many think is even more brutal than the Mubarak regime. Satirists have to be very dedicated; if things go wrong they end up in prison – and their fans look the other way. "All that′s left of you is a hashtag on Twitter," says Youssef. It′s not a reproach, but why should he risk his life for this country? Exile was a better option.

"AlBarnameg" was a short democratic experiment. When the show was cancelled, a lot of people said that Egypt hadn′t been ready for political satire. Youssef thinks this is nonsense.

"Those are excuses spread by the regime. We′re not ready for equal rights, we′re not ready for freedom, we′re not ready for democracy. How can you not be ready for something good?" The revolution isn′t over, he says, it′s less an event than a process: "It′s not about throwing stones, but about changing your way of thinking."

From a Egyptian perspective, then – from his perspective – America has a lot to lose. When a president turns against the media, democracy has to be protected, in Youssef′s view. "America, I hope you do something about that Trump. Consider this your warning for what is yet to come," his autobiography ends. And then, because of course he would never end on such a tragic note: "Honestly, I am running out of places to go and Canada is too fucking cold"

Dunja Ramadan

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin