Is Egypt a democracy? Well, let us not be prissy.
96 per cent declared they’re for Abdul El- Sisi.
Of course they don’t want Morsi, an incompetent oppressor.
But are they left with nothing but which evil is the lesser?
One of my first blogs, back in March 2011, covered the satire accompanying the downfall of Egypt’s Hosni
Mubarak, the most recent of a succession of military rulers. Since then the Egyptian situation has been one of my
recurring topics, covering the rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, and the efforts of the
popular TV host Bassem Youssef to keep his satirical program on the air in face of official and religious hostility.
Now we are back essentially where we started, but with a new cast of characters. Mubarak and Morsi are in jail, and another general, Abdulfattah el-Sisi, has taken over. His victory comes after a one-sided election during which Sisi hardly deigned to campaign yet received close to 96% of the vote (though the polls were kept open an extra day to bolster the abysmally low-turn-out.)
Under Sisi the outlook for dissent in general and satire in particular is grim. Youssef, at least for now, has given up. During the Morsi era Youssef had been threatened by Brotherhood supporters and harshly interrogated by prosecutors. When the military took over a Youssef skit showed him eating cupcakes with Sisi’s face on them while he asked “how many he should buy to prove his patriotism.” The general was not amused. Newspapers accused Youssef of being a threat to national security, an enemy of Egypt and an agent of the U.S. In May, 2014, his show was taken off the air to avoid “influencing” the campaign. And in June Youseff announced the program would not be returning. “The climate is not suitable for this political satire program,” he said. “I am tired of fearing and worrying about the personal safety of me and my family.”
Youseff’s role model, Jon Stewart, was outraged: “Bassem Youseff and his team did a tremendous show under harrowing conditions…Sisi says, I will show my people what a powerful and courageous leader I am by making sure that guy doesn’t make fun of our sectarian violence, 14 per cent unemployment and hyper-inflated food prices.”
Youseff was not beyond criticism from sources other than the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. He had admitted to plagiarism in claiming to be the author of an Arabic article on the Ukraine that proved to be a copy of an article in English in Politico magazine. And Max Fisher, formerly of the Washington Post, now with the online magazine, Vox, wrote that “while Youseff’s censorship is certainly awful in its own right, it’s also part of a much larger and more complicated Egyptian tragedy – one in which Youseff himself could be said to have played a role.” Fisher’s charge is that while Youseff was “an important truth-teller” under the the Morsi regime, he went beyond opposing their abuses, “supporting an anti-democratic, anti-liberal movement to exclude Islamists from public life, and ultimately to replace them with a military coup government.”
Yet, as Jon Stewart himself has pointed out, Youssef had to work under conditions far more hostile than those facing Stewart– or Fisher. For Fisher to demand that Youssef calibrate his satire so finely that he could mock Morsi while being properly respectful of his Muslim base is unrealistic. Satire, by its nature, is not carefully balanced, is not required to offend just so far and no farther. While Sisi’s rule may be more oppressive than Morsi’s, this is mostly because Morsi was a less efficient oppressor than Sisi.
In any case, from the perspective of Egyptian dissenters, the cancellation of Youssef’s program is dismaying. Once again the censor rules. This is not the end of all political satire in Egypt. In an article “Gallows Humor: Political Satire in Sisi’s Egypt”, Jonathan Guyer, writing after Morsi’s fall and just before Sisi’s election, talks of the work of a number of Egyptian political cartoonists. Satire, says Guyer, has long been “ a chief ombudsman for the country”, and cartoonists are “agitators and outliers in Egypt’s new political climate, responding to volatility and uncertainty through satire.” But with several journalists in jail “mainstream newspapers haven’t dared to mock Sisi head on, leaving some cartoonists with Facebook their only outlet..
Rather than trying to summarize Guyer’s article, which includes several examples of the cartoonists’ work during the Morsi and military regimes, I refer you to the full article in Guernica an online magazine of art and politics, May 15, 2014.