Egyptian satirist back on air

TV host must walk a fine line in a polarized country


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CAIRO -- As his popular television show returned to Egypt's airwaves Friday after a long hiatus, Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian satirist, took a swipe at the country's new military leadership in perhaps the only manner such criticism remains possible: with great care.

After playing a recently leaked video clip of Egypt's defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, talking to colleagues about influencing the news media, Mr. Youssef responded with mock indignation. "Nobody can tell us what to say or not to say," he said, as a disembodied arm appeared from beneath his desk, stole his script and replaced it with a new text.

"We want freedom," Mr. Youssef added, as the arm, a stand-in for Egypt's powerful security agencies, slapped him in the face.

It was Mr. Youssef's first show since the military ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July, casting Egypt into a kind of fevered dream of violence and polarization. As the country's Islamists were brutally swept from power by Egypt's new leaders, television channels were also purged of dissent, cheering on the military-backed government and a mood of resurgent nationalism.

That climate fed restless anticipation here for the return of Mr. Youssef's show, called "The Program," a weekly skewering of Egypt's political class and the news media. Would he lampoon the new leadership as mercilessly as he had Mr. Morsi?

While his fans hoped for the return of an independent voice to counter the conformity on the airwaves, the revived show was also a test of what the military-led government was prepared to allow.

Mr. Youssef, a heart surgeon who modeled his program on Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show," has attracted the ire of the authorities before. In March, prosecutors summoned him for questioning on charges that he had insulted Mr. Morsi. The administration denied that it was behind the questioning, but it was part of a pattern of similar charges leveled by Mr. Morsi's sympathizers that chilled dissent against the Islamist government.

Since Mr. Morsi's ouster, the room for dissent has become far more restricted. The authorities have killed or imprisoned thousands of his Islamist supporters. Egyptian and foreign journalists have been harassed or arrested.

In a deeply divided nation where it has become normal to be asked about one's political loyalties, much of the stifling atmosphere seems self-imposed.

As his program began Friday night, Mr. Youssef seemed more intent on advocating for a third way in Egyptian politics, between loyalty to the military and loyalty to Islamist parties, than on provoking a confrontation with the new leaders. He did not speak in detail about the most incendiary news of the past few months -- the mass killings of Morsi supporters by the authorities -- but he said he stood against violence, whether by the state or against it.

He explicitly poked fun at Egypt's interim president, noting that many Egyptians seemed not even to know his name. (It's Adli Mansour.) His jabs at Gen. Sissi, widely seen as Egypt's de facto leader, were more oblique. It seemed funnier, and perhaps safer, to make fun of the cult of personality the general had inspired.

Despite his apparent attempts to calm the arguments polarizing the country, there was predictable outrage. On Twitter, Ahmed Sarhan, a former spokesman for Mr. Morsi's rival in the presidential race, wrote, "The leader of the army shouldn't be criticized or ridiculed as long as he's wearing the uniform of the military."

On the opposite side, an Islamist supporter wrote that Mr. Youssef had provided "propaganda for the coup."

Dina Samak, a journalist, saw something hopeful even in the satirist's cautious approach.

"Bassem Youssef didn't explicitly say that the king is naked," she wrote, "but advised people to look at his clothes."


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