Bassem Youssef determined to continue ‘El Bernameg’ despite hurdles

Bassem Youssef, former host of a now-suspended popular political satire show “El Bernameg,” sat down on Tuesday with the New York Times during his stay in New York to accept an award for press freedom from Committee to Protect Journalists, and spoke about the future of his show as well as the current political climate in Egypt.
After the cancellation of his show, Youssef is determined to continue airing it despite legal hurdles. He is currently considering many offers from other channels based in Egypt, like Rotana and MBC. “This show represents the hard work of so many people involved in it, and it’s a shame for it to be stopped, so I will do my absolute best to bring it back on air on any other channel,” he said.
Youssef also dispelled rumors circulating that “El Bernameg” was moving to the German channel Deutsche Welle. “Your primary source has to be an Egyptian or an Arab screen broadcast from inside Media City in Egypt,” he explained, adding that they plan to still air future shows in same theater on Talaat Harb St, despite many generous offers to buy it.
Youssef’s show was pulled just minutes before the second episode was to air. The contract with CBC was terminated 19 November, after airing only one episode on 25 October, following Youssef's four-month hiatus.
The move is only the latest example of the public domain’s thin-skinned sensitivities to political commentary. Though Youssef did not criticize the government directly, he teased the fervor of fans who support Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who led the ousting of President Mohamed Morsy. This was apparently enough controversy to stoke the show’s suspension, though CBC assures the show was canceled only for financial reasons.
“That’s their side of the story,” Youssef told New York Times. “Were they being pressured? They said they weren’t. Did the upper circles of power dictate that? There is no proof that this happened… So the official story stands that it’s a legal and financial issue, which really doesn’t make sense.”
Youssef is often referred to as ‘the Egyptian Jon Stewart,’ nicknamed after the man whose show inspired him to start “El Bernameg,” and first became popular with his jokes poking fun at the administration of ousted President Mohamed Morsy. In one of the episodes, Youssef donned a massive hat, mocking the attire worn by Morsy during his visit to Pakistan.
In a country unaccustomed to free speech, people on both sides of the political spectrum can be offended by Youssef’s sense of humor. Earlier this year, after mocking Morsy, the government soon ordered his arrest. Many spoke out against Youssef’s detainment, including the Jon Stewart himself, and through public pressure his case was soon dropped.
“Without Bassem and all those journalists, and bloggers, and brave protesters who took to Tahrir square to voice dissent, you, President Morsy, would not be in a position to repress them,” Stewart adamantly voiced to the camera during his show in April. “For someone who spent time in jail yourself under Mubarak, you seem awfully eager to send other people there for the same non-crimes, and just like you, they will only emerge from prison stronger and more determined.”
With the political climate characterized by severe polarization, moderates like Youssef earn very few friends. “Some people are very happy that I am being taken to questioning,” Youssef said. “I mean, of course the MB have absolutely no compassion for me and some of the people who are ultra-military supporters think that this is the right thing to do, that I should go away.”
The polarization of Egyptian society since 30 June has reached such levels, Youssef argues, that many people have adopted a mentality of ‘it’s either us or them.’ “The Muslim Brotherhood thought this way and the anti-Muslim Brotherhood thought this way,” he said. 
The fear of people who think on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Youssef says, has caused Egyptians to abandon their revolutionary values. “Everybody suddenly is into survival mode, so some people would say, ‘Let’s delay the slogans of the revolution because now we are looking for security, which is more important.’ Other people are still loyal to these three demands (bread, freedom, social justice), and other people are just thinking of revenge,” he added.
Regardless of the new polarized environment, “El Bernameg” still has the same message and does not favor one group or the other. “We anticipated that many people would not continue to like us because we knew that we would piss off a lot of people. But the thing is that we will piss off extremists on both sides,” Youssef said. “It’s a controversial program, and we’re not there to make friends.”
He says the right to free speech allows him to continue his program even if it makes some people unhappy. “We have a product, it’s out there, if you like it you can buy it and if you don’t like it you can just walk away. The thing is they buy it and then they complain about it later, so you know, it’s not our fault,” Youssef explained.
Looking back on the past three years since the 25 January revolution, Youssef says the most important lesson learned is that Egypt is unpredictable. “And we are doing a very, very good job being the soap opera of the world. It’s too dramatic. We’re drama queens of the news right now. We’re always in the news,” he joked.

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