Last Friday, after the government-imposed curfew emptied the streets of Cairo and other major cities, many Egyptians settled in front of the TV, expecting to watch El-Bernameg (“The Program”), a popular political satire show anchored by Egypt’s version of Jon Stewart, comedian Bassem Youssef.
But instead of Youssef’s smiling face, viewers who tuned into Egypt’s CBC channel were greeted by TV anchor Khairy Ramadan reading a statement from the network’s management that the show had been suspended because the previous week’s show had “violated an agreement” by the network, as well as the network’s “editorial policies.” You could almost hear the sound of thousands of viewers throwing household objects at their television sets. With most Egyptians still cooped in their homes (the curfew, in effect since August, begins at midnight six nights a week and at 7pm on Fridays, when demonstrations are common), accusations of censorship began immediately.
It is still not clear exactly why the network chose to pull Youssef’s show, but observers of Egyptian media say the move was another sign that limits on political expression are creeping back into the media, even without direct government involvement. “Part of the sadness about this: the government didn’t need to issue an injunction. CBC was willing to censor all on their own,” said analyst H.A. Hellyer on Twitter.
Youssef had only returned to television a week earlier, after a three-month hiatus. Authorities had hauled Youssef in for questioning after he criticized the Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, and in April a court rejected a Muslim Brotherhood-backed attempt to shut the show down. But in July, the military overthrew Morsi and installed a government that pressed ahead with the deadliest political crackdown in decades. The new government shuttered pro-Morsi media and, like Morsi’s administration, prosecuted journalists. A day before the show returned to the airwaves, the State Commissioner’s Authority called for the case against Youssef to be reopened.
In his first show back, in Stewartian fashion, Youssef mocked everyone: the media, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the current government. It was politically brave, but throughout the show Youssef appeared aware of the risk he was taking, and even called attention to the new red lines in political speech.
Though he did not spare the new government, he used a light touch. Instead of directly mocking General Abdel-Fattah Sisi, the military chief who deposed Morsi, he took on the cult of personality surrounding him. In one gag he ridiculed the recent phenomenon of printing Sisi’s portrait on chocolates and cakes. With a flourish, an actor dressed as a baker appeared from offstage, showing a tray of Sisi-stamped cupcakes and other sweets. He also offered a hard, brown, “Rabaa” loaf, a reference to the pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square, which was emptied in a deadly security operation in August. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 1,000 people died when security forces dispersed that protest camp and another in Giza, the most serious mass killings in Egypt’s recent history.
“Do you have anything with Adly Mansour?” Youssef asks the baker, referring to the interim president. The baker hesitates, not sure that he recognizes the name. Amidst Sisi fever, the president’s name barely registers.
“Give me a half kilo,” Youssef says, grinning at the cupcakes.
“But don’t you love Sisi?” the baker replies, glaring suspiciously.
“Okay, I’ll take all of it,” Youssef replies, acting intimidated.
After the episode, CBC immediately distanced itself from the political content of the show. “The CBC board rejects some of the contents of Al-Bernameg episode as it contains insults of some Egyptian nationalist figures,” the channel said in a statement quoted by AFP.
Since the unaired episode from November 1 has still not surfaced on the internet, it also remains unclear if the suspension was a result of something Youssef said about the government, or some other cause. Others have suggested it was Youssef’s send-up of the media, including CBC, that landed him in trouble. A widely followed anonymous blogger, The Big Pharoah, reported on twitter that he attended the show and that Youssef bashed CBC for its “double standards.” It is also unclear if and when another episode of El-Bernameg will air, though the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya, citing an anonymous source, reported that no new episode has been produced. Representatives of CBC and Bassem Yousef did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
Others see a small silver lining in the most recent chapter of the Youssef saga. “There is more censorship because there is a whole lot more criticism than before,” said Rasha Abdulla, the chair of the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at the American University in Cairo. “We’re not back to the [President Hosni] Mubarak days, because back then there was nothing like Bassem Youssef,” she said in an interview. The 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak instilled Egyptians with a sense of empowerment that resulted in the breaking of political taboos, and for now that has not stopped, Abdulla argues.
But Bassem Youssef himself appeared to raise the question of whether, in the new military-led political order, freedom of expression has begun to contract. In the crescendo of his October 25 show, a raucous troupe of dancers, wearing enormous multicolored bow-ties, sings a tune about Morsi’s rise and fall. The song recounts the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory, then how it alienated the people, resulting in the vast protests of last June. The song cranks louder and faster. Finally, one of the singers blurts out what he thinks is the next line, “Sisi fought terrorism, and so he made a coup!”
The song comes to a sudden stop. The other dancers seize the man, and Youssef clamps his hand over his mouth. “Are you a member of the Muslim Brotherhood?” Youssef asks the actor. “What? I’m Christian!” he protests.
The actor’s “mistake?” Calling Morsi’s removal a “coup” and not a popular revolution. Don’t deviate from the script, the gag is saying. Don’t violate the new taboos.