Egypt’s “Somber Mood:” Bassem Youssef’s al-Barnamej Suspended

Rabea Mallah
Rabea Mallah via Flickr

Critics of the post-revolutionary leadership in Egypt have lost an ally. By censoring Bassem Youssef’s al-Barnamej (“The Program”) show, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has expanded his military rule over a somber misr. The surgeon-turned-satirist has been an open critic of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi, General Sisi, and Interim President Mansour, leaving no political figure unscathed in his amusing program scheduled to air on a private Egyptian channel this fall after a four-month hiatus. While the program’s satirical character projected it to fame in 2011, it also caused the show’s censor yesterday. To identify the current political leader, Bassem Youssef planned to show a picture of General Sisi, then quickly swap it for Interim President Mansour’s headshot. This would imply that the military general has usurped power, a stronger attack against the general than Bassem Youssef’s previous joke, revolving around a pun based on Sisi’s name (“Sisi-fours”, a pun on the French pastry petits-fours).

Notorious for mocking Sisi’s ultranationalist, pro-military rule and for poking fun at the hypocritical character of news anchors, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” received an injuction, based on individual complaints lodged to Prosecutor-General Hisham Barakat, calling for the suspension of his show due to his failure to comply to “editorial policies.” Al-Barnamej has not been immune to lawsuits and complaints in the past. Youssef faced charges of disturbing the peace, inciting violence, and threatening social security in 2011. Egyptian courts have also accused Youssef of anti-Islamic behaviour, notably after the host’s depiction of former President Morsi as a magician. According to al-Jazeera, the recent charges against Al-Barnamej include “creating chaos” and “sowing sedition”, two threats diametrically opposed to the stability and repression of military rule.

The Egyptian government’s injunction against al-Barnamej highlights significant problems for the post-revolution state. “Editorial policies” should be the least of Sisi’s concern given the domestic quagmire in Egypt at the moment, so citing this as cause for the suspension suggests that “editorial policies” mask Sisi’s censorship campaign. Noteworthy too is Youssef’s reaction to his program’s suspension: fearing violence against his person or family, the host has fled to the United Arab Emirates. This response may seem extreme, especially since the host insisted on travelling back to Egypt despite predicting legal troubles prior to his return this fall, but suggests worsening conditions for independent media in Egypt. Finally, taking the show off the air is a direct blow to democratic freedoms delivered by “democratic” institutions, such as courts and popular complaint petitions. Given Youssef’s reputation as the “joker for every era,” the court’s censorship of his al-Barnamej not only casts a “somber mood” across the country, but also intensifies domestic and international perception that Egypt is disintegrating further into rule by might over rule of law.

The political and sectarian domestic conditions in Egypt today have deteriorated parallel to the collapse of rule of law. The rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood, who were ousted from power last July, and General Sisi intensifies daily. In effect, the former President and fourteen senior officials of the Muslim Brotherhood are slotted for trial this week for violence against protectors, employing thugs, and disturbing the peace. Those same officials accuse the army of channeling popular discontent for its military coup against Morsi, as if such a rebuke will emancipate them from the charges against them of crimes against civilians. To this day, the Egyptian government continues to freeze the organization’s assets, bank accounts, and property contracts, signalling a unilateral crackdown on high-level Muslim Brotherhood figures. But Egyptian citizens, despite being spared from these government policies, are still weary of domestic instability: sectarian conflicts are on the rise. In addition to egregious attacks on Coptic communities and churches, the government has also censored a film about Egypt’s Jewish community. Having lost an distraction and outlet for their frustrations with the censorship of al-Barnamej, prospects of living under military rule for the average Egyptian is grim.

Rule of law is based on the principle that government is subject to law just like the former’s legally-equal constituents. While not necessarily premised on the existence of a democratic regime, rule of law encompasses general principles often associated with democratic rights. In the present Egyptian context, it is possible to assess the clout of rule of law by looking at the judiciary’s independence from the regime and by identifying the procedural and substantive components of “Egyptian democracy.” The judiciary in Egypt is independent from the regime only in name. For example, the Prosecutor who issued one of Bassim Youssef’s arrest warrants, Talaat Ibrahim, was appointed to the position by then-President Morsi despite the fact that a court had ruled this appointment illegal. The court decision was ignored, Ibrahim denied any bias, and the arrest warrant remains legal. This highlights the haplessness of the courts due to lack of compliance, factionalism and politicization within the judiciary, and the manipulability of the office of the prosecutor.

So the judiciary does not score impressive points in favor of rule of law; neither does “Egyptian democracy.” Its procedural features are tarnished by courts who consistently rule in favour of the government at the expense of advocacy for the opposition or the citizenry, which undermines rule of law’s basic principle of equality before the law. An analysis of the system’s substantive features fare a little better. On the issue of freedom of expression, an argument can be made that the courts are responsive to popular complaints. These were the basis for many of Youssef’s legal troubles. However, Morsi supporters filed these complaints upon which the prosecutor issued arrest warrants, so the extent to which the courts do not reflect partisan preferences is questionable.

What cannot be questioned is that a gloomy mood is spreading throughout Egypt. Intensified by General Sisi’s military decrees, ruthless repression of opposition, and now censorship of popular shows like al-Barnamej, this atmosphere is characterized by increasing political inflexibility. Through its persecution of Youssef, who enjoys international support, Egyptian leadership is portraying itself as an unaccountable and rigid political entity that cannot even take a joke, even when the satire is obvious. According to the Qatar tribune, officials were highly critical of Youssef’s interrogation attire, an “wore an oversized version of a graduation hat modeled on one donned by the president Morsi when he was awarded an honorary degree in Pakistan earlier in March.” General Sisi and his political minions can’t deal with the satirical outlier, preferring a uniform, somber, regularized Egypt.