June 2, 2014
CAIRO (AP) — In a new sign of shrinking freedoms, Egypt's most popular satirist Bassem Youssef announced Monday that his landmark weekly TV show, which lambasted presidents and politicians, has been cancelled because of pressure on the station airing it and a climate in the country that no longer accepts satire.
But Youssef, Egypt's answer to Jon Stewart, gave a parting shot to the next president — former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
"Egypt is witnessing its most glorious days of freedom — and I'll cut off the tongue of anyone who says different," Youssef joked at a news conference in the Cairo theater where his show, "ElBernameg" was filmed.
Since el-Sissi's military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last summer, Egypt has seen a surge in nationalism in the media that tolerates little criticism of the army or of the now retired field marshal. El-Sissi won a landslide victory in presidential elections held last week.
Youssef has come under heavy denunciations from military supporters for his often biting satires of that jingoistic fervor and the media celebrities who fuel it in newspapers and nightly political TV talk shows.
In the 11 months since Morsi's ouster, Egypt's military-backed government has detained thousands of members of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and killed hundreds.
The campaign has also arrested secular and pro-democracy activists who led the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak and are now critical of the military.
During his election campaign, el-Sissi said he will safeguard human rights, but his vague assurances were overshadowed by his insistence that some freedoms must take a back seat to stability. He backed new laws that severely restrict political gatherings and protests.
In another ominous step, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, in charge of police, said Monday that police are buying equipment to monitor traffic on social media and the Internet.
The equipment will combat crime and prevent "rumor-mongering and distortion of facts," slander, organizing of illegal protests and "anything that may be contrary to established values and customs," he said. He said it would not infringe on freedom of expression, saying it would instead bolster "social cohesion."
Youssef told reporters that Saudi-owned MBC-Misr TV, which has been carrying his show, had come under pressure to halt it, though he would not say from whom.
He brushed aside a question on whether he believed el-Sissi was behind the network's decision. But he gave a sly jab to the ex-military chief when asked for details on the reasons.
"I want to give it to you, but I cannot," he said with a grin, bringing a roar of laughter from his staff on stage with him and journalists. The phrase was used by el-Sissi in a recent interview and was widely mocked on social media because in Egyptian Arabic it has a sexual connotation.
He also declined to comment when asked if the pressure came from the Saudi government, which has been among the main backers of el-Sissi.
"I'm not a revolutionary and I'm not a warrior. I was expressing my views once a week. The present climate in Egypt is not suitable for a political satire program," Youssef told reporters. "I'm tired of struggling and fearing and worrying about my safety and that of my family."
"Stopping the program sends a much stronger message than if it continued," he said, adding that MBC-Misr "tried as much as they could but the pressure was immense."
"ElBernameg" — Arabic for "The Program" — was launched after the 2011 uprising that ousted Mubarak, first on the Internet and later on the privately owned Egyptian networks ONTV and CBC.
Its heyday came during Morsi's one-year presidency. Youssef stung Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, as well as liberal politicians and media personalities, with jokes, skits and musical numbers. At one point, he was questioned by prosecutors during Morsi's presidency after complaints he insulted the presidency.
Youssef said at Monday's press conference that Morsi's government had wanted to shut him down and that if it had stayed in power it was "only a matter of time" before it did so.
His satire made him the darling of Egyptians opposed to the Islamists. But many of them turned against him when, after Morsi's ouster, he began poking fun at the military, Egypt's most powerful institution.
The trouble began soon after his first show following the ouster. CBC refused to broadcast one episode, prompting Youssef to jump to MBC-Misr. Transmission of several episodes with that station was jammed, but it was never clear by whom.
The show went on a hiatus before campaigning began for last week's presidential election, in which el-Sissi was seen from the start as the certain winner. Youssef said that was a decision by taken the station in hopes of protecting the program.
Youssef's announcement Monday means it will not be returning.
At the news conference, he posed with the show's staff of around 50 people, some of them tearful, holding a sign that read, "The End," in Arabic and English.
He said he turned down offers by non-Arab TV stations to air the show because he was concerned he would be branded a "traitor" by the pro-military media in Egypt. "Egypt is the program's home. It cannot be broadcast from abroad," he said.
He played down the show's importance as a political voice, saying it was given "more credit than it deserves."
"Maybe the cancellation will force people to think of something more creative and useful rather than depend on one thing or one person," he said.
Asked what message he would have for whoever was behind the pressure to stop the show, Youssef said: "Why are you scared?"
*Photo by Amr Nabil courtesy of AP