Bassem Youssef on authoritarianism, Hosni Mubarak and political satire

The World
A man in a black suit poses for a photo.

From 2011 to 2014, Youssef hosted an Egyptian satirical news program called AlBernameg, or The Show – the first show on political satire in the Middle East that was topping the regional YouTube charts. 

Courtesy of Bassem Youssef

It’s been a big week for authoritarian leaders around the globe. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Wuhan for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak began, signaling to citizens that COVID-19 hasn’t shaken his grip on power. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also managed to dig in his heels this week: a new parliamentary maneuver is likely to allow him to remain at Russia’s helm through 2036.

Comedian Bassem Youssef knows a thing or two about how autocrats manage to stay in power. From 2011 to 2014, Youssef hosted a satirical news program called AlBernameg, or The Show, which topped regional YouTube charts in the Middle East. But in 2014, Youssef had to flee his native country under pressure from Egypt’s military leaders.

Youssef now performs standup comedy on the West Coast. His latest routine skewers Egypt’s recently deceased former strongman, Hosni Mubarak.

"[Mubarak] died at the age of 91 years old. He had a full life. He was like a demigod for 30 years of his life," Youssef said. "For me, though, Hosni Mubarak was dead in 2011. I was actually surprised he was still alive."

Youssef spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about Mubarak and his political satire.

Marco Werman: Hosni Mubarak does come up in your most recent show Bassem Youssef. What do you think the next generations of Egyptians will read about Hosni Mubarak in their history books?

Bassem Youssef: People don't read history books anymore. I think people just get their information from the Internet. That's not a joke because when I was growing up, my source of information is the history books that I would have in school.

I studied, and I believe that was told to me. I would grow up in the 80s and 90s. We just like used the Internet for random porn. But otherwise, this is the beauty of what is happening in the world right now. You might think that you are indoctrinating your generation, but people will have their way to find the truth on their own.

In the history books, they can say whatever they want about Hosni Mubarak, [or] in school in Egypt. But at the end of the day, the guy was a dictator. The guy died 91 years old. Even like half of us would not even live to that age. And then half of them would say, "He was a good man. We really miss him." And this is the same people who missed George W. Bush because they have seen Donald Trump.

As you say, Egyptians are now ruled by another authoritarian, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and in your most recent show, you contrast Egypt's political system with what you've been seeing in the US. So, Bassem Youssef, your point is a good one here, it's expensive in this country to buy a ticket to the democracy game. So the thing that made you who you were in Egypt, the thing you satirized, dysfunctional authoritarian politics, that disappeared when you moved to the US in 2014, or did it? Do you see where I'm going with this?

Well, at the end of the day, I'm a performer and an entertainer, satirizing and attacking the government and making fun of the government. What made me big in Egypt is that I was basically the first and the only one who did that.

Now, when I came here to the United States – and I'm speaking to you honestly and openly and practically – every other show is someone who is doing the thing that I was doing in Egypt that was very new. But here it's an established art and you have huge names, all of these people who have been satirizing and attacking the government.

So, as an immigrant, I cannot come and recreate myself in the same way. I'm an immigrant. I'm new to this country, and I have to find my space. I don't think that the media scene in America is waiting for an Egyptian to come from his country to teach Americans about how they can deal with an authoritarian regime.

For them, it is different. They have their own people and I think it wouldn't be that easy. What I did was I had to reinvent myself in a different way. That's why I do the comedy, the one-man show, I am telling my story. And through that story, I show people what I've been through and I give them examples of what they're going through.