Egypt’s ‘Jon Stewart’ and his rise to fame thanks to a revolution

Egypt’s ‘Jon Stewart’ and his rise to fame thanks to a revolution
Updated 09 June 2017

Egypt’s ‘Jon Stewart’ and his rise to fame thanks to a revolution

Egypt’s ‘Jon Stewart’ and his rise to fame thanks to a revolution

“This is how you know you’re in an Arab country, you are either stuck in a revolution or in traffic. Egypt has the distinction of having both.”
“Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring” by Bassem Youssef is the story of how a cardiothoracic surgeon who taught Argentinean Tango in his off-time and produced YouTube videos in his laundry room turned into Egypt’s, and much of the Arab world’s, most popular political satirist. By carving a path through unchartered territory with only his wit and a television team, Youssef challenged a military junta and religious powers in an ever-changing political landscape by making people laugh through the most uncertain periods in their lives. This book is an account of his rise and his inevitable escape as a man whose jokes hit harder than the truth.
Known as the “Jon Stewart” of Egypt, Youssef’s rise to fame was quick, but Egypt’s path toward political instability was just as speedy. Before the Egyptian Revolution in 2011, Youssef was uninvolved in politics, elbow deep in people’s chests as a heart surgeon. He had just finished his medical license exams and was looking forward to getting a job in America. He was not too thrilled about medicine but in Egypt “having a son as a doctor or an engineer is a coveted social status.” His father was a judge, his mother a university professor and his brother an engineer, the standard of a typical middle-class family in Egypt. But it was difficult to work in Egypt as the health care system was fragile if not failing. He was desperate to get out.
Motivated by dreams of stardom but with only a scalpel in his hand, Youssef found a job in Cleveland and was waiting for his visa to come through when on Jan. 25, 2011, the Egyptian Revolution began.
With crowds of protesters camping out at Tahrir Square, Youssef and his wife of only a few months watched the scene unfold from their home. With “endless amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets, armored cars crushing protesters, it happened: hundreds of black-suited heavily armored men turned the other way and started running. We the People were chasing after the police!” In just 18 days, Egypt’s third president, Hosni Mubarak, would step down, giving hope for the rise of a new political era. Although many believed the revolution was a success, in hindsight Youssef says Egyptians “would spend the following five years paying our debt.”
A rising star
Youssef’s book travels from pre-revolution to post-revolution Egypt, looking back at his evolution into one of the Arab world’s biggest celebrities. Once he released his first YouTube video in March 2011, he hoped for 10,000 views but ended up getting more than 100,000 views in just two days, and then 5 million in two months. In the next few months, he would create six more videos with his small team of four, before six different television channels offered to sign him for a show. To Youssef, it was “a nice change of pace from the calls I used to get when people were getting into cardiac arrest.”
At the same time, however, Youssef received his visa from Cleveland, and in that moment realized that his “fate could literally be held in two hands: a contract for a TV show in one and the papers to continue my medical career overseas in the other.”
Youssef’s choice was not as hard as he thought it would be. “If I was going to sell my soul, the price better be right.” He chose to stay in Egypt, much to his mother’s delight, and went on produce a show like former host Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”
Their show, “Albernameg,” was risky for Youssef, his team and the channel which signed him, ONTV, because something like it had never been produced or aired before. And while Youssef’s future was now beginning to take shape as a satirist, it is not easy to joke in the face of political change. “I was a comedian with absolutely no experience in acting or doing standup comedy,” he said in the book.
After a month on air, however, Albernameg was the second most popular show on television. Through Egypt’s leadership change, amid the chaos, the violence, the protests, the lives lost, Youssef forged ahead with jokes, and therefore made himself a hero to many and an enemy to others.
“My job is to be a watchdog on media and authority. I will make fun of whoever is going to be in power.”
Funny and insightful
Youssef’s book is funny and insightful, and as much as it is specific to Egypt, it is relatable. Throughout the book he draws parallels between Egypt and the Arab world and Egypt and the US showing that no matter where political unrest takes place, it motivates ordinary people to act.
One cannot help but laugh reading Youssef’s book, with his crafty chapter titles and his asides, but also feel his heart break for the things that could have and should have been in Egypt during the pivotal period of political change. And while he would occasionally fight with his mother when he’d criticize the army, or ruffle the feathers of the religious parties, or when he was told that he was the only voice of the people by a mourning father, Youssef was changing the face of Egyptian television, creating a new platform, giving a voice to people through satire, opening himself to criticism and judgment and doing so during some of the most devastating periods in the country.
“For the next couple of years, I was repeatedly called insensitive and rude for trying to make people laugh while there was blood in the streets,” he wrote.
Throughout his career, Youssef went where no Egyptian political satirist had gone before, but he had 3 million people behind him while doing it. However, speaking to people with staunch beliefs and navigating political strife would always be difficult.
Youssef’s story is one that is inspirational. He and his team risked much of their careers as well as lives to produce shows they believed in, without giving into any authority, and ultimately, it would lead to the show’s end, but at least they did what they had to to see through their dream.
“After the fame and the short-lived celebrity life I had in Egypt, my story is all I have left,” he wrote.
— Manal Shakir is the author of “Magic Within” published by Harper Collins India, and a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
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