John Drescher

Drescher: Egypt’s Jon Stewart gets the last laugh

NCSU student Michael Ramos
NCSU student Michael Ramos

Political satirist Bassem Youssef is known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Youssef hosts a wildly popular Friday night television show, modeled on Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” that makes light of the absurdities of politics in Egypt. After he made fun of President Mohamed Morsi, Youssef was detained on charges of insulting Islam and Morsi.

After a worldwide backlash against the investigation of Youssef – including a brilliant, searing, 11-minute monologue by Stewart – Morsi said he had nothing to do with the charges against Youssef.

Which is about as close to being funny as the humorless Morsi ever will be. It was Morsi who dismissed the previous prosecutor general under dubious circumstances and appointed his successor. That prosecutor has harassed Youssef and other prominent critics of Morsi, including a high-profile blogger. It’s inconceivable Morsi did not at least condone the legal action against Youssef.

Youssef took it all in stride. A good comic looks always for new material, and his arrest provided a fresh batch of hypocrisy from Egypt’s new government, the first led by a freely elected leader. On his TV show, Youssef once wore a giant, exaggerated version of a hat Morsi had worn while receiving an honorary degree. Youssef wore the same ridiculous hat to his interrogation at the prosecutor’s office.

To me, the harassment of Youssef seemed colossally stupid – a major public relations disaster for a government trying to stabilize a simmering democracy. But I wanted to hear from someone who knew Egypt, preferably someone with a sense of humor. I found him at N.C. State. Michael Ramos, 21, is a political science major from Trinity (south of Greensboro) who will graduate in December. He’s traveled to more than 40 countries, including Egypt, and follows that country’s politics.

He’s also the founder of Improv at N.C. State, which says it seeks to bring “crazy events such as flash mobs and silly ideas to the normally sublime routine of the day so that students and faculty can walk away with smiles on their faces.” His group performed five events this academic year, including a “campus freeze” on the Brickyard in which more than 400 students froze in place for five minutes as 1,000 people watched.

Improv at N.C. State also performed a choreographed dance outdoors on campus that was the work of a “flash mob” driven by Ramos’ use of social media. Videos of these events are on YouTube. “That’s what college is about – doing new things, exploring new options,” Ramos told me this week.

‘Keep laughing about it’

Youssef, 39, a practicing Muslim and former heart surgeon, is the most popular TV comedian in the Arab world. Ramos knew of him before the arrest a month ago but has followed him more closely since then. “If I were him, I’d keep laughing about it,” Ramos said. “That puts more pressure on the Morsi government. Youssef has a huge amount of sway and he knows it.”

In trying to suppress Youssef, the Egyptian government elevated him. Time magazine recently named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Of his friend, Stewart wrote in the April 29 edition of Time: “He performs his satire in a country still testing the limits of its hard-earned freedom, where those who speak out against the powerful still have much to fear.”

What Morsi should do

Ramos said the government’s harassment of Youssef incites passion in Morsi’s opponents. He said Morsi could defuse the backlash against him by appearing on Youssef’s show. “(Morsi) doesn’t exactly have the best sense of humor,” Ramos said. “But it would benefit him to have some kind of outreach” to the millions of Egyptians who rose up against dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and demanded democracy.

That’s not likely to happen. It was Youssef who earlier this year discovered and broadcast a video of Morsi making anti-Semitic comments at a rally in 2010. Morsi doesn’t seem to be the type who could make fun of himself. But if his government keeps harassing Youssef, quite possibly the most popular man in Egypt, it won’t be long before Morsi discovers the joke is on him.