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.