Bassem Youssef and the Sultan

Mocking rulers is a tradition almost as old as rule itself. At times mockery is subtle and allegorical; at others it is blunt, sometimes gauche, but always funny. Some wonderful examples are the fables of Nasreldin Goha, a folkloric character rumored to have lived in thirteenth century Turkey. One of his jokes comes to mind:

"Goha, how much do you think I'm worth?," asked the Sultan to the wise jokester.

"I'd say 4,000 dinars, Sultan."

"You must be joking -- my clothes alone are probably worth 4,000 dinars!"

"Then I guessed right," answered Goha.

The ancient story stops here, but the modern-day Sultan, Mohamed Morsy, didn't enjoy having his hollowness mercilessly exposed by satirist Bassem Youssef. Commonly referred to as "the Arab Jon Stewart," Youssef has frequently put the government and its president in the crosshairs on his weekly show, El-Bernameg (The Program), which is broadcast by a private channel every Friday evening.

Responding to an arrest warrant issued by the illegally appointed prosecutor general for insulting the president and denigrating Islam, Bassem Youssef decided to go to the prosecutor's office -- wearing a parodying the one President Morsy had recently worn at a ceremony in Islamabad. As he waited for questioning, he tweeted jokes about his summons.

Much later, after a five-hour interrogation -- during which he was shown the punchlines to his own shows and made to answer for them -- he was released on a 15,000 EGP ($2,200) bail. Despite the pressure, he vowed to continue his work. "The tone of my show is actually getting higher and higher and higher," he said.

Jon Stewart's defense of Youssef on The Daily Show last night incidentally echoed a quatrain by Egypt's iconic poet and humorist from the 1960s, Salah Jaheen:

My heart was once a rattle, it is now a bell

I rang it -- the servants and the guards were alerted

But I'm only the jokester -- why get up, why fear?

I hold no sword, and ride no horse

How strange!

Why get up, why fear? Well, it's a tactic of tyrannical regimes to create laws that criminalize freedom of speech and criticism of the state. The laws under which Youssef was accused are holdovers from previous regimes, which the new Sultan -- sorry, president -- was glad to keep on the books. The assumption that such laws will subdue a population that recently vanquished the previous ruler to use those methods is, needless to say, ridiculous.

The attempts of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters to silence dissent and criticism are not only futile, but painfully counterproductive. The intense media coverage and outpour of global support highlight the ridiculousness of a president trying to imprison a comedian -- especially a comedian the president used to support his political campaign. Already the fiasco is rapidly backfiring. A U.S. State Department spokesperson accused Egypt of muzzling free speech and suggested that Egyptian authorities were selectively prosecuting their opponents. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo has also gotten in on the action.

Morsy's campaign isn't subsiding, though. Now a second comedian, Ali Qandil, has also been summoned to the prosecutor general's office, this time on charges of blasphemy. And TV commentators who defended Youssef are also facing legal complaints for threatening national security.

Stand-up and TV comedy may be the heirs of the wise jokesters of yesteryear; either way, comedy is here to stay, despite the government's best efforts to silence dissent.

And even in the unlikely event that comedy does disappear, government officials are doing a great job making a mockery of themselves all on their own.

They will, of course, only provide fresh material for all the new jokesters to come!    



Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, April 01, 2013

A happy Easter to all those celebrating this week!

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In a new paper for the New America Foundation, Philip Napoli and Jonathan Obar examine the global phenomenon where new internet users are gaining access by using cell phones instead of computers.

International Crisis Group assesses the growing discontent in Eritrea and the potential for a violent power struggle.

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Following Russia's latest crackdown on non-profits and activists, Russian journalist Masha Gessen writes for the International Herald Tribune, comparing the tactics to the Soviet Union.