From Surgeon to Satirist
BY Dan Ruccia
“You are a natural,” Jon Stewart raved after Bassem Youssef’s first appearance on The Daily Show. “I know you might find this weird, and that you made a leap of faith switching your career to be a satirist, but you will soon discover that you are made for this. You are not just another guest—you are a friend and a colleague.”
It was the summer of 2012, just after the end of the first season of Bassem Youssef’s wildly popular TV show Al-bernameg (“The Show”), a year and a half after the Arab Spring ejected Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak from power. Youssef was in New York and, through a friend, snagged a tour of the studios for The Daily Show. The biting satire and incredible success of Al-bernameg had already earned Youssef the title of “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” and Youssef was giddy at the chance to meet Stewart in person. In the documentary Tickling Giants, Youssef can be seen practically melting when he first lays eyes on Stewart’s desk. And in his funny, self-deprecating memoir Revolution for Dummies, he talks about “squeal[ing] like a fan girl” when he got to shake Stewart’s hand after an hour-long conversation. Later that day, Youssef was invited on the show itself.
Youssef’s excitement was entirely understandable given how unlikely his story is. Until early 2011, Youssef was a cardiothoracic surgeon with dreams of moving to the U.S. When the uprising in Tahrir Square started, he was waiting for paperwork for a position at a hospital in Cleveland. The utopian promise of the days after Mubarak’s resignation inspired him and a friend to create a series of short YouTube videos satirizing state media, Islamist politicians, and celebrities. Amazingly, his first video was watching 100,000 times in its first two days. Within months, numerous Egyptian channels were in a bidding war to put him on TV, and Youssef was a heart surgeon no longer.
The next three years were incredibly tumultuous both for Egypt and for Youssef. The election of Mohamed Morsi and his ensuing hypocrisy and corruption provided endless fodder for Youssef and his writers, and viewers flocked to the show. Youssef spared no target in the Egyptian establishment, earning him praise (from Egyptian liberals and free press advocates from around the world) and scorn (first from the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, later the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi). He even managed to smuggle Jon Stewart in as a guest in June 2013.
While Youssef had always skirted the line with the authorities—including a notorious incident where the Morsi government tried to jail him for making fun of Morsi’s hat—his luck started to change after the military coup in July 2013. Sisi quickly became a kind of national hero, and his regime did not take well to any form of criticism. Youssef soldiered on, continuing to poke fun at any target he deemed fit, including the government. The government started harassing Al-bernameg, putting pressure on him and the network and even attempting to jam the station’s signal. Eventually, it all became too much. Despite continued high viewership, Youssef was forced to cancel the show in June 2014 and to flee the country that November.
After a brief stop in Dubai, Youssef moved to the U.S., where he has used his knowledge and experience of life under actual dictatorships to hilariously critique and contextualize the Trump administration while also continuing to provide his offbeat assessments of goings on in the Middle East.
Dan Ruccia is a Durham-based composer, writer, and graphic designer.