The timing could not have been better for Sara Taksler’s new documentary Tickling Giants. Or worse if you think about it. Hosni Mubarak has returned home and the promise of the Arab Spring and the revolution which swept from Tahir Square and was witnessed around the world seems to have been definitively buried under the new autocratic regime of former army strong man now President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi. Conclusions about the inevitability or otherwise of the failed revolution often play on the kind of ethnic generalization: the Arab need for a strong man, the absence of a democratic culture.
However, these conclusions are reached by the external pontificators and all we see of the country itself is distant shots of chaotic-looking streets and the occasional passer-by interviewed and flatly over-dubbed into bland inhumanity. It all feels so depressing, so humourless. Enter Bassem Youssef, a successful heart surgeon whose YouTube videos of political satire got such a following that he was offered a television show. Al-Bernameg, which translates as The Show, became a sensational success, clocking massive viewing figures and making him into a national hero. Modelling himself consciously on his hero Jon Stewart, Youssef hones his sharp political humour on a range of targets within the regime.
When Tahir Square is happening, Youssef is on the streets interviewing people and joking with them. Sometimes, even his exuberant good spirits flag, as when one of the nurses at a demonstration tells him: “I like your comedy, doctor, but today a patient died in my arms.” Youssef’s rise feels like a triumph of Egyptian society and both a cause and beneficiary of the revolution taking place. The actual TV doesn’t change much following the revolution – “it’s all shit,” he remarks – and The Show goes from season to season gaining in prestige and relevance. Youssef’s supporting cast of helpers, writers and staff quickly become a team of politically active and socially committed young men and women.
There’s a buzz in the office, a self-belief that these jokers are, as Percy Shelley described poets, ‘the unacknowledged legislators’ of their world. A highlight sees Youssef first visit The Daily Show, jumping up and down like a little kid, and then having Jon Stewart guest on The Show. The first democratically elected President, Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, makes for a fine target and Youssef gleefully takes the bumbling and vain theocrat on. But as Morsi’s rule becomes increasingly autocratic and he pushes through constitutional change so pressure begins to come down on The Show. Demonstrators picket the show and though the demonstrations are small, it shows that Youssef and his colleagues will not be tolerated forever.
Such are the ironies of history that the fall of Morsi, celebrated as another revolution in the streets, brings to power the military and a populist strongman in el-Sisi and a regime which, no longer needing the sheen of democracy, is far more ruthless in its repression of free speech. Arrests of family members, intimidation and growing demonstrations as well as pressures from within the television network see The Show forced off the air temporarily. The opposition to The Show from all quarters proves beyond all doubt the desperate need that Egypt has for this kind of irreverence and opposition. Youssef himself with his crooked smile and exuberant enthusiasm comes across as someone who in a normal state of affairs would be just another amiably slick joker. But in this context he takes on the bravery and the bearing of a hero.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty