No Laughing Matter

The arrest of a popular Egyptian satirist bodes ill for the revolution

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Amr Nabil / AP

Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef enters the office of Egypt's state prosecutors to face accusations of insulting Islam and the country's Islamist leader in Cairo in this March 31, 2013 file photo.

Egypt’s Islamist rulers clearly have no sense of humor—and that may contribute to their undoing. The country’s top prosecutor issued an arrest warrant on March 30 for Bassem Youssef, Cairo’s most popular comedian. Known as the Jon Stewart of Egypt, Youssef hosts a mock news show that evolved out of the uprising two years ago. Its spoofs and satires have become the symbol of a more tolerant society willing to make fun of its foibles.

Youssef’s show also reflects the cultural change that has been as important as political change in the Middle East’s transformation. Comedy, hip-hop, theater, poetry and film helped give voice to the rejection of both autocrats and extremists in the decade after 9/11. That changing culture then helped embolden protesters to take to the streets in 2011. But the government of President Mohamed Morsi seems too thin-skinned to tolerate even playful criticism.

The prosecutor has charged that the skits on Youssef’s late-night show went too far by “insulting” Islam and mocking Morsi. But Youssef is outspoken in his adherence to his Muslim faith, and he is an equal-opportunity satirist. Originally trained as a cardiac surgeon, he raced to Tahrir Square in early 2011 to treat protesters badly beaten by baton-wielding thugs on camel-back. The experience turned him into a revolutionary committed to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. It also led to a career change. “The [revolution] triggered the idea to do a show exposing the hypocrisy that was happening,” he told me last year. “So I became a comedian overnight.”

The first skits made fun of the ensconced elites backing Mubarak. The YouTube videos were an instant sensation at a time when social media was the revolution’s primary tool. After Mubarak’s ouster, Youssef was picked up by an Egyptian satellite channel. His current show is among the most popular on Egyptian TV, reaching some 30 million viewers. During the 18 months of military rule that followed Mubarak’s fall, he daringly poked fun at the generals. During the first democratic presidential poll last year, he lampooned all 13 candidates, from Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei to ultra-conservative Salafis. Since Morsi’s election in June, Youssef has regularly spoofed the former Muslim Brotherhood official, teasing him for everything from his policies to his sometimes clumsy English.

Egyptians have a long history of comedy, but political satire was rarely public until the 2011 uprising. The revolution had a distinct sense of humor, which was in evidence at Tahrir Square. “Please leave. My arm hurts,” begged one placard held by a protester. Egyptians turned the word Mubarak into a derogatory verb—as in “My in-laws Mubaraked,” or stayed too long.

For his part, Youssef has taken his arrest warrant in stride. “Police officers and lawyers at the prosecutor general’s office want to be photographed with me. Maybe this is why they ordered my arrest,” he tweeted from the court on March 30. He was interrogated for almost five hours and released on bail pending further investigation. “This won’t tame my humor at all,” he told me after his release. “I’m already planning the next show. I’m going to make fun of what happened to me—and Morsi. Who else?”

But his arrest followed a presidential warning on March 24 that the government was prepared to take unspecified actions to “protect this nation.” Several arrest warrants were soon issued for other critics. The reaction overseas will cost Egypt’s government. At a moment when Washington was preparing for Morsi’s first visit, the State Department criticized Cairo for “disturbing” restrictions on free speech, activist unrest and uneven justice. The U.S. embassy tweeted Stewart’s hilarious rant against Morsi for arresting his Egyptian counterpart—sparking a stream of angry tweets by the Muslim Brotherhood and government sites. Rather than let his prosecutors arrest Youssef, Morsi would have been well advised to invite the comedian over to the presidential palace to share a laugh. The Arab world’s new democracies should take note: freely elected governments have a hard time retaining legitimacy—and, ultimately, power—if they can’t take a joke.

Wright, a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.