Can Laughter Change Egypt?

Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon turned comedian who spoke about the role that humour is playing in Egypt’s politics today.

Editor's note: After questioning by prosecutors over allegations that he insulted Islam and President Mohammed Morsi, Egyptian famous satirist Bassem Youssef has been released on bail ( ($2,190; £1,440). Some media reports highlight the news of Youssef’s arrest as a setback of freedom of expression in Egypt post the revolution.

As mentioned on BBC, “Bassem Youssef is a doctor who shot to fame after winning a large number of followers with his witty lampooning of public figures in amateur videos posted on the internet following the uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak's rule in February 2011. He became a household name when his satirical show - likened to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show in the US - began to be broadcast three times a week on one of Egypt's independent satellite stations.”

This article was republished on Culture & Entertainment page on August 2012, to shed light on Youssef’s show and the role of humor as a portrayal of the Egyptian political and social changes.



That Egyptians are funny is a well-known Arab stereotype. Egyptians are said to be light of blood — able to turn things that would make anyone else’s blood boil into a joke.

Before the revolution, this was often expressed in everyday life through political satire – jokes about politicians, the police and the president himself challenged the status quo and poked fun at the pretensions of the powerful. But because these jokes were told privately, among friends and family, they had little effect upon the regime’s grip on power.

Read more about media post revolution in Egypt:

- Egypt's 'comedy Revolution' Proves A Hit

- Repressed Egyptians Find Their Voice

- The Facebook Spring & the War on Twitter

However during last year’s Egyptian revolution, satire directed at the powerful went public, offering Egyptians a way to resist power creatively and non-violently. Public laughter helped break the grip of fear the regime had relied on for so long, and continues to affect Egypt’s politics today.

Importantly, the use of social media during the revolution allowed political humor to reach a much broader public. This movement built on the model of websites such as El Koshary Today, a comic news site, and Ezba Abu Gamal (The Village of Gamal’s Father), a blog featuring stories of life in a small village run by a dictatorial mayor that parodied people and events in Egypt.

The demand that the president step down was expressed through witty songs, funny chants and protest signs with jokes.


And when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, public political humor exploded.

The demand that the president step down was expressed through witty songs, funny chants and protest signs with jokes like, “Leave so I can get a haircut” or “I just got married—leave so I can go home to my wife.”

Through these protest methods, Egyptians became part of a larger global trend. “Laughtivism” – using humor to create political change – has been used by activists as diverse as anti-corporate protesters Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno in the United States, and the Serbian group Otpor, which helped overthrow the Milosevic government in Serbia in 2000.

And in June, American television audiences of the popular Jon Stewart comedy program, The Daily Show, heard from Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian heart surgeon turned comedian who spoke about the role that humor is playing in Egypt’s politics today.

When it comes to post-revolutionary Egypt, Youssef is perhaps the most successful political satirist. Soon after the revolution, Youssef and several of his friends created a YouTube program called B+ that has been compared to The Daily Show.

Weaving together news clips with ironic commentary to create a critique of both Egypt’s politics and its media, episodes of B+ often received over a million hits.

Last summer, the show made an unprecedented jump from social media to television when Youssef’s El Bernameg (The Show), which grew out of B+, premiered on the independent channel ONTV. In one memorable episode, Youssef did imitations, using wigs and full make-up, of several key presidential hopefuls – poking fun not only at them but at Egypt’s controversial and chaotic presidential election process.

Alongside El Bernameg are other comedy shows such as Rob’e Meshakel (Mixed Quarter) and the Lamp Show. Before the revolution, these comedy sketches used to avoid political humor out of fear of punishment from the regime. Now they feature it, indicating a new openness in the country.

Humor and people’s responses to it “have changed as the revolution has changed,” says Hebatallah Salem, an instructor at the Arabic Language Institute in Cairo. Salem, who teaches students how to translate humour, is compiling a history of the Egyptian revolution through its jokes.

Public humour, she says, continues to empower people, and reminds them that they can resist power through jokes. Whatever form the new Egypt finally takes, laughter has gone public, and political figures will have to learn to deal with it.

The revolution will continue, as long as it keeps its sense of humor.

This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). It is republished here with kind permission.
Related Links:
Carefree Cairo
Funny Axis of Evil
"Mr. President, Fly Now!" — Chants a Kid Protestor

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