He was known as the "Jon Stewart of Egypt"
Now Bassem Youssef is trying to make it in America
You may have heard of Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist often pegged as the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” who fled his home county after three years of mocking his nation’s ruling elite over the nation’s television airways.
Now, he wants to make Americans laugh.
Youssef, who recently settled in California with his family, has just published a book, “Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring,” and his story is the subject of a new, captivating documentary called “Tickling Giants.”
Youssef’s trajectory to Egyptian stardom happened phenomenally quickly. He was working as surgeon in Cairo when Egypt underwent a revolution in 2011. Inspired, he started making videos on YouTube from his laundry room that lampooned the nation’s state-run media and ruling elite, a moonlight exercise that eventually got him his own show on an Egyptian television station. In less than a year, the show, which borrowed heavily from the style of “The Daily Show” in the US, grew widely popular nationwide. (Jon Stewart himself would later pay a visit on the program.)
In a culture not known for widespread religious or government satire, Youssef’s show pulled few punches. When the Muslim Brotherhood rose to power in the aftermath of the revolution, Youssef gleefully mocked then-President Mohammed Morsi on air, words that resulted in a summons to appear in court to face charges of insulting the state. The charges were later dropped.
“We come from an area where societies are not allowed to question, not allowed to speak against authority,” he said. “We broke that taboo. We actually spoke up. We spoke up against presidents, against leaders, against institutions that were absolutely untouchable.”
When the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi in a 2013 coup, Youssef and his staff pressed on. By then his show was watched by millions, but the attention also drew him criticism from Egyptians — including some in his own family — for poking fun at the leaders of the military. His broadcasts were frequently jammed and threatened with lawsuits. After General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup, became president in 2014, Youssef terminated the show under intense pressure from the government.
Then, true disaster struck. On Nov. 11, 2014, an Egyptian court ruled that Youssef would be forced to pay more than $10 million as penalty over the content of his programming. Fearing for the safety of his family, Youssef fled his homeland. In just 90 minutes, he packed two bags and friends drove him to the airport for a flight to Dubai.
“When I was driving through the airport, I was thinking, just a couple of years ago I was the biggest name in this country, and now I have to escape,” he said. “At least we did something, and now I had to run for my life.”
He had many work prospects in the Middle East beyond Egypt, but nothing that would allow him to speak freely or make jokes about governments. Unsatisfied with his choices in the Arab world, he moved his wife and daughter with him to the United States.
After living in New England and the Bay Area for a time, he and his family settled in Los Angeles, where they currently live.
While Youssef is a known celebrity across the world, in many ways, his future in the United States is unclear.
“I decided to come here to America, start from scratch, from zero – where I’m starting from a different people, different language. I am starting for a third time, a third career,” he said. “I have the concerns that many Americans have. Will I be able to make it or not?”
For now, his schedule is full with speaking engagements, book talks and travel to promote the documentary.
But he knows that book tours don’t last forever, and he’s searching for the role to play permanently in his newly adopted home. His life in Los Angeles is spent like many other aspiring hopefuls in the city’s viciously competitive entertainment industry: Youssef regularly takes acting class and he’s joined an improv group. He does voice-over work on the side. He auditions for performance opportunities, roles in television, and, like everyone else in the business, rejection is the rule, not the exception.
Of course, he landed in the United States during its own time of some political uncertainty. Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency in 2016 shocked even the best of the political pundit class, a phenomenon Youssef has observed closely. He has also watched the reaction to Trump, and, from his own experience, knows the limits of satire in public life.
“It’s amazing to see all of this activism. I would love to see 10 times more of snarking and making fun. But what does it lead to? I’m just worried that people are just resolving to sharing and retweeting and reposting stuff, but the fight is every two years, is in your mid-terms, in your elections. If you do the digital activism, but don’t do that, it’s horrible. You’re just going to laugh yourself to destruction,” he said. “Satire is great, but it doesn’t do anything by itself.”
Despite all that he has been through over the past few years, Youseff says he doesn’t feel like an exile in the United States, a place he plans to make his permanent home.
“I considered myself an exile even when I was in Egypt. You can be in your own country and be an exile if you can’t connect with your own people around you,” he said. “You can make your exile home. If you find a certain success there, if you find your path, your voice, that makes it home.”