Two weeks ago Egypt’s public prosecutor ordered the arrest of comedian Bassem Youssef, host of the TV show Al-Bernameg, for “insulting Islam” and Egypt’s President Mohammad Morsi. Youssef’s name is rarely mentioned without reference to his admitted role model, the American comedian Jon Stewart, who recently defended Youssef on The Daily Show.
Since Youssef’s arrest, nearly every story about the incident labels the heart-surgeon-turned-TV-star as “Egypt’s Jon Stewart.” But Youssef — who continues to risk his freedom and career to ridicule Egypt’s political elite — has little in common with Stewart, a man who’s built a comedy empire on an unwarranted reputation for prophetic humor and moral integrity. And even while Youssef himself cites Stewart as an influence, the Egyptian humorist far outshines his American counterpart in his willingness to challenge political and social taboos.
Youssef’s arrest and his constant pairing with Stewart strengthen Stewart’s undeserved reputation as an important free speech icon. The incident also reinforces the impression that America both defends and inspires free speech abroad.
American officials are of course eager to reinforce this narrative. News of Youssef’s arrest provoked a stern warning from US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. Nuland’s scolding should not, of course, be understood as sincere concern over Egyptian civil rights. Barely two month’s ago, the US government delivered four F-16 fighters to the Egyptian military just as anti-regime protesters were beaten and tortured in the streets. While Nuland was chastising Egypt last week, thousands of American tear gas canisters arrived in Suez. In the absence of any coherent effort to align US policy with the promotion of free expression, rhetorical rebukes stand-in for substance.
Not to be outdone by Nuland, the US Embassy in Cairo also rushed to defend Youssef by bravely tweeting its disapproval and sharing a clip from last week’s Daily Show, where Stewart himself defended Youssef. On his program, Stewart issued a withering critique of the Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi. Embedded in the broadside was a brief but important quip praising “free speech” back in the US “If insulting the president were a jailable offense here [in the US], Fox News go ‘bye bye,’” Stewart remarked in a baby voice.
But in reality, the US cult of free speech rests upon shaky ground. American democracy functions thanks to a rigorous commitment to unfettered political criticism, we are told, yet the government exercises selective, self-aggrandizing alarm over free speech violations abroad. US officials feign outrage over speech restrictions in Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran while funding the militaries of closed dictatorships in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Meanwhile, officials brag about free speech at home, while the government vigorously pursues whistleblowers and attempts to censor websites that feature Wikileaks. Last week’s media-blackout during Exxon’s Keystone pipeline oil spill reveals how corporations still can exercise veto power over damaging news stories.
These deep contradictions fall beyond the purview of Stewart’s liberal critique; he loves to criticize the ridiculous cable news sideshow, but on complex free speech issues he tends to go silent. Stewart never once mocked the US government’s efforts to punish whistle-blower Bradley Manning for leaking evidence of misconduct in the “war on terror.” When the government finally arrested Manning for treason, The Daily Show aired a brief segment mocking Bradley supporters for singing silly protest songs.
Yet Jon Stewart seems to relish his role a free-speech champion — living, breathing proof of the vitality of American democracy. And as mainstream news channels devote more and more time to celebrity sex scandals, the continued success of The Daily Show does reinforce the impression of a healthy democracy, humbly bowing its head each night to Stewart’s boorish critique. Stewart himself regularly registers as one of the nation’s most trusted newsman.
Of course, Stewart’s recent defense of Youssef is commendable, and on the surface both men do appear to have much in common: two brave and uncouth grinning prophets, unearthing hypocrisy with the power of humor. But up close, Stewart is ineffectual and his reputation for truth-telling is a mirage. While taking potshots at obvious hypocrisy and conservative wingnuts, time after time Stewart hides behind his comedy and flubs opportunities to confront powerful people and level substantive critiques.
During the two separate interviews with King Abdullah Stewart proved especially docile. Last September, while the King implemented a crackdown on journalist and opposition activists back in Jordan, Stewart praised his leadership on The Daily Show: “Perhaps that humility though is what earns you the authority from your people to be that countervailing force and to be that stabilizing force,” Stewart gushed, echoing the King’s talking points.
Stewart is comfortable taking Morsi to task for arresting Youssef, but when faced with a living breathing Middle East autocrat, he ducks.
Obviously the biggest difference between The Daily Show and Al-Bernameg is that Stewart and his writers enjoy a much higher degree of media freedom in the US. But on a deeper level Youssef’s comedy works to challenge religious and political taboos; Stewart’s humor heaps the blame for society’s ills on a small group of irrational crazies.
That is why Stewart prefers to take on bumbling ogres like Bill O’Reilly than ask hard questions of those in power. His show is about mining political content for “edginess” without staking out actual ideological positions. His shtick is to appear eminently “reasonable,” and to attribute political dysfunction, inequality, injustice, to a small but frustratingly influential and unreasonable cabal of Republicans, Fox News personalities, and weak-willed centrist Democrats.
In Egypt, Youssef appeared on the air night after night, ridiculing the President and his party, knowing full well that Egyptian journalists and intellectuals are increasingly targeted for political speech. Youssef also takes on false piety and mocks religious hypocrites. In a country where religious fanatics regularly intimidate journalists, this is a particularly ballsy move. He even took aim at Muslims Brotherhood’s contradictory relationship with Israel and the US.
In January, Youssef aired a clip of Mohammad Morsi making anti-Semitic comments back in 2010. He then juxtaposed those comments with the now President’s conciliatory attitude towards both the US and Israel, and advised that Morsi “admit everything you said in the past was a joke, or stop bluffing.”
Even after his arrest, Youssef didn’t let up. In his first show after his release,, Youssef featured a parody of a popular patriotic song, “Egypt my homeland” swapping out the lyrics to parody Egypt’s increasing reliance on financial support of Qatar. The segment drew strong condemnation from Qatari business figures.
Back at the free speech mothership, Stewart can’t even muster the nerve to challenge powerful guests in Comedy Central’s New York studios.
Over the past years Stewart has commendably eviscerated right wing media personalities like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. But when faced with Mexican President Vicente Fox, Henry Kissinger, Lynne Cheney, Bill Clinton, and a host of truly powerful leaders, Stewart facilitated virtual infomercials. He scores points by making Obama fart jokes, but you won’t catch him asking Kissinger about war crimes in Vietnam, Vicente Fox about his government’s rampant corruption, or Abdullah about his role as dictator of Jordan. Because for Stewart, the real roadblocks to a more just society are irrationality and stupidity, rather than those who actually hold power; he exploits political content for laughs without getting his hands dirty. And these days, the jokes are usually anemic. Stewart typically shows a clip of someone else doing or saying something funny, and then quickly cuts away, makes a funny face, and then mumbles something cute.
Youssef and Al-Bernameg employ Daily Show-style cutaway jokes and montage-media gags, but the show functions on a much higher ethical level. Youssef takes on the powerful and incurs real risks. Stewart postures like an iconoclast, but his comedy merely reinforces the status quo. Anytime Stewart is questioned pointedly about his political convictions, he retreats to his comedic roots, and denies any agenda.
Youssef — recently released on a $2,100 bail after five hours of interrogation — does not have that luxury.