An Evening with Bassem Youssef

Presented in partnership with New York Live Arts as part of the Live Ideas Festival: MENA/Future – Cultural Transformations in the Middle East North Africa Region. Co-sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Public Programs.

Dr. Bassem Youssef is a Satirist, a Surgeon, and in 2013 was named Time’s “100 most influential people in the world.” Dr. Youssef is known as,”The John Stewart of the Middle East”. His character is progressive, liberal and   charismatic. I was honored to attend the talk with Journalist, Author of Miral, and Foreign Policy Analyst Rula Jebreal at the Graduate Center City University of New York.

Dr. Youssef is the creator of the Egyptian political and satirical discontinued show, Al Bernameg (The Show), also one of the writers and the host. The message of the show sheds light on fundamental themes on governmental policies, like the 2010 Parliamentary elections and current events in Egypt. Al Bernameg received an unprecedented viewership with an average of 40 million viewers each week. I was in Egypt at the time and remember vividly gathered friends and family, ready to watch the show and laugh. Every Friday night, viewers gather around t.v. screens at cafe`s or homes anticipating. Dr. Bassem Youssef made us laugh indeed. I think the primary reason we waited for his show is, Bassem sent a real message to the viewers. He never sugar-coated the situation in Egypt, as Egyptians are accustomed to. People finally found a public figure who does not filter words nor hide. Egyptian National Television tends to present decrypted news, in most cases, and avoid being upfront with its citizens. For example, on January 28th, 2010 Egyptian Television denied facts and chaos taking place in Tahrir Square. Thank heavens for the Internet, Twitter gave people a true voice that reached every single home in Egypt.
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Despite the laughter and authenticity, Dr. Bassem Youssef received a backlash of attacks with many lawsuits on his hands from the government. The satirical style of Al Bernameg is willing to poke at powerful political figures in Egypt, like former President Hosni Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi, and President Abd el Fattah el-Sisi.

Dr. Bassem Youssef’s comes from a Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgeon background with a vision and dream to change perceptions of media and the scope of entertainment in Egypt. He is very light-hearted and witty. He knows how to attract an audience. During the talk at the Graduate Center, Dr. Youssef covered issues like injustices that remain present in Egypt, detaining innocent youth, inflicting torture – quite the contrary of freedom of speech. Dr. Bassem Youssef described the origins of the word Sarcasm in late Greek, sarkasmos, which means to “tear, bite into, or dissect” into the issue, which is a profession not too far from his previous one.

“The problem is not in about electing a new president.” Dr. Bassem Youssef describes. All dictators apply tactics from same recipe books of tyranny and dictatorship. Most Arab leaders either share fundamentalist perspectives supporting religious extremism, or apply to military political rule. This misconceived definition of “secular” connotes progression or to deny religion, which is not the case.”You can become a secular and religious person at the same time. It does not have to be one or the other.”- Dr. Youssef describes.

“Europe had to go through war to become the great power they are today. We are just in the beginning of understanding the concept of a revolution and democracy, the Arab Spring as a whole.” – continued Dr. Youssef.

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The talk was alive and vibrant, the audience engaged in the conversation, the host Rula Jebreal asked interesting questions. For example, Jebreal commented on the change of direction and motive of entertainment in Egypt and control movements on media, press and censorship in Egypt nowadays. People misunderstand honest media by replacing it with obscene talk shows that violate private lives of citizens by broadcasting scandals on national television.

In general, the discussion covered a wide scope of the current situation in Egypt dealing with young active groups, journalists and television figures. Egypt currently remains under inhumane atrocities from the government with over 40,000 prisoners. There is a very long road ahead of Egyptians for freedom of speech, expression and thought.

In the end, it was a great show. The audience was excited to finally meet Dr. Youssef 5 years post-revolution. I appreciate Dr. Youssef’s use of terminology “slack-tivists”, explaining that those who aspire activism but from the comfort of one’s home by relying on other’s to carry out their mission, even if they risk their lives resulting in prison; To merely become a spectator and not a doer.

“If you can challenge authority you can win democracy.” Said: Dr. Bassem Youssef.

“A revolution is not 18 days, it is a process.” – Dr. Bassem Youssef

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