Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef, internationally celebrated as "Egypt's Jon Stewart" for his willingness to poke fun at his country's top leaders through years of turmoil, held a press conference today announcing that his show had finally been forced to shut down under government pressure.
The news is, unfortunately, hardly surprising. Since taking power in a coup in June 2013, military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his government have dramatically curtailed civil liberties and dissent. Still, while Youssef'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 Youssef himself could be said to have played a role.
It is hardly surprising that Sisi's government would never tolerate an independent satirist like Youssef. What is darkly, tragically ironic — and not well known among Americans who celebrate Youssef's accomplishments — is that Youssef himself cheered on the rise of that government when it was targeting Egyptians less similar to himself.
This censorship is not a story that begins and ends with Field Marshall al-Sisi. The military leader was himself propelled into power in part by a tide of right-wing secular nationalism that rose up in early 2013, largely in reaction against Egypt's then-Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government. That popular movement began by rallying against the Islamist government's serious and anti-democratic abuses. But much of the movement turned anti-democratic itself, supporting not just Sisi's June 2013 military coup but also his subsequent crackdowns against dissent.
That right-wing nationalist movement has played a key role in enabling Sisi's abuses every step of the way, up to and including his government's censorship of Bassem Youssef. But so, perhaps, has Youssef.
It is true that Youssef, during the difficult year of Muslim Brotherhood rule in 2012 and 2013, was an important truth-teller whose jokes challenged the government's abuses. He was briefly arrested for teasing the government on his TV show and faced real threats of serious prison time. This is the Youssef who is celebrated in the United States and elsewhere for his political satire, for challenging authoritarianism even when it put him at personal risk.
The Youssef who we do not typically see in the United States is the satirist who didn't just challenge the Muslim Brotherhood government — but who went a step further, vilifying the regular Egyptians who supported the Islamist government, characterizing them as lesser citizens or internal enemies in a way that played into Egypt's hate-filled political polarization, Sisi's coup, and the disastrous consequences of both. Indeed, Youssef cheered on the military coup — as well as the bloodshed of anti-coup protesters, because unlike him they were Islamists:
MB leadership sending its youths to die at army HQs to victimize themselves against the world. Blood for publicity. Cheap. #not_a_coup— Dr Bassem Youssef (@DrBassemYoussef) July 5, 2013
This is the larger Egyptian tragedy, to which Youssef himself was party. The abuses of the Muslim Brotherhood government were severe, and they included attempts to muzzle Youssef. The TV satirist was right and brave to challenge them and to champion ideals of free speech. But, like a number of Egyptians, Youssef went beyond opposing Muslim Brotherhood abuses, supporting an anti-democratic, anti-liberal movement to exclude Islamists from public life, and ultimately to replace them with a military coup government.
The consequences of this movement, which were obvious to seemingly all but its supporters, were always going to lead to the silencing of people like Youssef. He is a victim first and foremost of an increasingly authoritarian government, yes, but he is also the victim, like too many Egyptians, of a political movement to exclude people unlike himself, a movement in which he himself participated. In this way, his censorship is awful not just in its own right, but as a symbol of Egypt's larger political tragedy. The fact that even someone internationally celebrated for his championship of free speech ideals would play an indirect role in his own censorship is a sad testament to the political self-destruction of today's Egypt.