Interview

Bassem Youssef Isn't Joking Around

The Egyptian satirist stands on the front lines of Egypt’s culture wars.

CAIRO, Egypt — A Beyoncé lyric graces the door to the office of Egypt's most famous satirist: "All the single ladies, Bassem is here!"

Past the door, Bassem Youssef's office is a testament to the comedian's eclectic tastes. There is a life-sized cutout of Angelina Jolie and a golden brown painting of Arabic calligraphy. There is a copy of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Anthony Shadid's House of Stone. There is a dartboard and a plate inscribed with a design that celebrates Egypt's pharaonic heritage. There are rubber duckies -- one dressed in a tuxedo, one as a chef, and one as a devil -- scattered throughout the room.

Youssef is not just funny -- he matters. His arrest by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-aligned prosecutor general ballooned into an international event, as he showed up at the court wearing a massive version of the graduation hat President Mohamed Morsy wore in Pakistan, and tweeted from inside the prosecutor-general's office that he had been arrested solely so the police officers and lawyers could take pictures with him. His April 24 appearance on the fake news set of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show was a body blow to those in the United States who argue the Brotherhood can be prodded in a democratic direction. "They are insecure," Youssef mused to Stewart. "They are locked up in their teenage years. They still have pimples and have to deal with their, I don't know, bodily hair."

Youssef's satirical news program al-Bernameg ("The Program") has also become one of the sole, unapologetically liberal rejoinders to the Morsy government and Islamist political dominance of post-revolution Egypt. At a moment when Egypt's opposition appears hopelessly fractured, liberals, socialists, and Nasserists alike can all agree on one thing: They love Bassem.

It has been Youssef, not the diverse array of opposition politicians, who has developed the sharpest critique of Islamism. "We have a façade. We have a pseudo-appearance of what Islam is," he told Foreign Policy. "Islam's not just about covering your hair. It's about how you treat other people. If you cover your hair or you have a beard, and then you are being a douchebag to other people, that's not Islam."

It's impossible to avoid the omnipresent description of Youssef as "Egypt's Jon Stewart," but the two comedians share more than a similar style. Just as Stewart took off during the George W. Bush years among liberals who felt alienated by the status quo, Youssef's show speaks to secular Egyptians who feel marginalized by the Islamist ruling class. Thirty million viewers tune in for each episode of al-Bernameg, according to the channel that hosts it, CBC. Café crowds shush and dinner parties stop when Youssef comes on -- for a certain segment of Egyptians, it is not just a comedy show, but a political event.

Youssef is well aware of how much his popularity owes to the Morsy administration, and to the military government that came before it. "Sarcasm all around the world is always against right wing and against people in power," he said. "That's the definition of political sarcasm. And having the [Egyptian] right wing in power is like having George W. Bush in power: It's a gold mine for everybody."

There is a slapstick element to Youssef's schtick -- he often appears unable to control the videos accompanying his monologue. "All we talk about is politics. Today I want to talk about something softer," he says in one episode, as a plate of Jello pops up on the screen, to his exasperation. Later, he tells his audience that he wants to discuss the president's statements -- only to be confronted with a video of Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badei, whom some Brotherhood critics accuse of being the puppeteer guiding Morsy's actions. "Not him, damn you, not him!" Youssef complains.

But it is comedy with a purpose. On the Dec. 21 episode of al-Bernameg, Youssef ran clips of Islamists delivering outrageous insults at him. "Bassem doesn't know how to clean himself in the bathroom," said one Islamist pundit. "I invite him to read al-Fatiha [the first chapter of the Quran] on the air -- if he reads it correctly, I will stop doing dawa [proselytization for Islam]."

As the episode closed, Youssef dropped the comedic act and hit back -- hard. "They look at us and don't see Christians and Muslims, no. They see non-believers, hypocrites, enemies of the religion and God," he said, before addressing his critics directly. "The equation is very simple. Just like you don't consider us Muslims, we don't consider you sheikhs or scholars." The approving roar from the studio audience was immense.

Youssef, who is a practicing Muslim, frames his stance as a defense of freedom of opinion against religious dogmatism. "It's about how you preserve religion and use it in spiritual leadership, instead of a tool of tyranny," he told FP. "That's our biggest problem. You can't just say 'vote for someone' or 'follow this person because that's the way of God.' When you do that, it doesn't really matter if you're a Muslim or Buddhist -- it's tyranny." 

Youssef has a regular column for the Egyptian daily al-Shorouk, where he writes seriously about the problems facing Egypt -- and gleefully mocks his Islamist critics. Shortly after the April 24 Daily Show episode aired, the Brotherhood attempted to tar Youssef for his association with a Jewish comedian: Its official Twitter feed approvingly passed along an al-Jazeera clip featuring former CNN host Rick Sanchez, who referred to Stewart as "bigoted" and claimed that Jews control the media.

Youssef didn't back down. "These people talk about the tolerance of Islam with other religions, but at the same time they do not distinguish between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political stance," he wrote in al-Shorouk.

Youssef does more than defend his friends -- he stands up for a liberal lifestyle in a country veering toward conservatism. He doesn't apologize for drinking alcohol: In one episode, following a clip where an Islamist television personality accused the media of "suckling on the devil's breasts," Youssef sucks on a red baby bottle. "It could be a Bloody Mary, I don't know," he says. And he isn't squeamish about being interested in sex: Responding to claims that alcohol and condoms had been found at an anti-Morsy sit-in, he quips optimistically, "We'll be multiplying."

In our interview, Youssef played down his social liberalism. He wants to keep the focus on his argument that Islamists are using religion to bully Egyptians out of the public arena -- a unifying message that transcends the liberal and conservative divide. "[Egypt is] a conservative country, so yeah, [that] makes people who are more conservative get an advantage," he said. "But what we have now is not about religion; it's just about people who are being hot-headed and people who are being extreme."

It's a tough line to walk. So much of Egypt's political crisis comes down to a trust deficit: The opposition suspects the Brotherhood and its allies of plotting to dominate government institutions and transform Egypt from a republic into a hard-line Islamic state. The Islamists Youssef lampoons on his show accuse their rivals of being hard-drinking, drug-taking hedonists who have sex out of wedlock -- essentially, forces representing a culture foreign to Egypt. The level of duplicity is far from equal, but leaders from both sides prefer to downplay certain aspects of who they are.

Recently, Youssef hosted an openly gay singer from the Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila on al-Bernameg, and the ensuing controversy threatened to drag the comedian into Egypt's incipient culture war. In light of the dispute, I asked Youssef if he had a different view on homosexuality than his Islamist critics. He repeated what he had said previously: He did not know the singer was gay, that it was not an issue that came up during the performance, and that the band members had been granted a visa to enter Egypt.

But that wasn't the question. I tried once more to get Youssef to open up on his views about homosexuality. "That's not even something that's on my mind...We have much bigger issues about political freedoms and social freedoms," he said. "The thing is, they [his Islamist critics] just want you to get sidetracked with other things. And they know, of course, that if you are in the form of pro-gay or whatever, they would put you in a bad place. It's the same thing as if they put you against God."

Following his answer, Youssef turned to his media handler and said in Arabic, "Is that fine?" Then he turned back to me and explained, "He just monitors everything to see if I'm going to screw up."

There are some things in Egypt, it appears, even comedians don't dare joke about.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

'We Are Not Fanatic Killers'

In an exclusive conversation with Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas chief talks about how Assad should have listened to his advice, and why he’s not “bloodthirsty” or “against” Jews.

DOHA, Qatar — In January 2012, Hamas abandoned its ally, Bashar al-Assad, cutting itself loose from the Syrian regime and relocating its headquarters from Damascus. Syrian state media launched a broadside against Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal in response, referring to him as "ungrateful and traitorous," and Iran reduced its financing (estimated at $20 to $30 million per year) of the movement. Meanwhile, Meshal now notes that he's "not against the Israelis because they hold a different faith," and championing the virtues of democracy, diversity, and human rights. So, what's gotten into Hamas's chief? 

In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, his first face-to-face talk since being re-elected last month, Meshaal explains why he chose to walk away from his benefactors. "[The Assad regime] took the wrong option -- they were wrong about their vision toward the conflict. Not only toward their internal conflict in Syria, but toward the whole Arab Spring," Meshaal told FP. "People aspiring for democracy and freedom should have been dealt with through political arrangements to meet their rightful aspirations. This would have reinforced the power of the country, the bonds between the people and their leadership, and it would have been for the best interest of the country."

To replace his alliances with Syria and Iran, Meshaal built strong ties with rising powers such as Turkey and Qatar -- countries that, far from being international pariahs, have strong working relations with the United States and Europe. The Qatari emir's visit to Gaza in October marked the first blow to international efforts to isolate the Hamas government there, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan soon plans to visit the strip as well.

Meshaal told FP that Hamas "felt a responsibility to extend all advice we can" when protests against the Syrian regime first broke out in March 2011, with the goal of achieving a quick solution to the crisis. Last month, journalist Nicholas Blanford, quoting an anonymous Western source, reported that Hamas had presented Assad with a seven-point program for defusing the crisis, which included open elections and Assad's eventual resignation. In both Meshaal's and the Western source's account, however, Assad ignored Hamas's recommendations.

"After all the efforts we have done with the Syrian leadership, we felt that nobody was listening," Meshaal said. "With the bloody developments in the Syrian Spring, we knew that the Syrian leadership wanted to use Hamas [to bolster its legitimacy]. We had no choice but to respect our beliefs, our principles, our values -- and we felt that after 10 months that we had no choice but to leave."

Meshaal made the case that the Assad regime -- by trying to resolve the conflict through brute military force rather than a political agreement -- paved the way for the violence that grips the country today. "[A political solution] would have spared Syria a lot of misery, a lot of casualties, a lot of the destruction and bloodshed that we see today," he said.

The Israeli-Palestinian arena

Describing his agenda for his new four-year term at the head of Hamas, Meshaal emphasized one issue above all others: The need to end what he described as the "occupation" of the Palestinian people's land, and the "atrocities" being committed against them by Israel.

"[Palestinians] are suffering from the settlements, they are suffering in the detention camps and the prisons of the occupation," Meshaal said. "[We aim] to stop the suffering of our people in Jerusalem, as they are suffering from the Judaization of the city... We want a real peace that would regain the rights for our people."

Hamas has traditionally opposed a two-state solution -- a position it reiterated earlier this year. Meshaal has denounced Secretary of State John Kerry's recent attempt to revive the peace process, saying that he "[does] not have a serious project or vision," and that his efforts are doomed to failure. He also rejected the Arab League's endorsement of land swaps between Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a peace deal.

In his interview with FP, Meshaal once again made the case that the blame for the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute does not lie with the Palestinians. "Israel is the one responsible. Israel occupies the lands ... they are practicing the worst kind of killing," he said. "The international community should work on the real problem -- not ask Hamas, the Palestinians, or the Arabs what do you see on this detailed issue or that. The Palestinians and the Arabs have given a lot of flexibility, the utmost flexibility toward resolving the issue."

One of Meshaal's top priorities is also achieving reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which dominates Palestinian politics in the West Bank. Relations between the Palestinian factions have been fractured since Hamas's armed takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, and Meshaal accused Kerry of exerting an American "veto" over the reconciliation during his recent visit to the region. He did this, according to Meshaal, as part of his efforts to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. "The Palestinian Authority has been financially extorted -- financial pressure has been exerted on [it] to impede the reconciliation steps," he said.

But Meshaal also signaled that Hamas's differences with Fatah over the legitimate means of opposing Israel are narrowing. The Hamas chief said that military resistance remained an integral part of his movement, but also endorsed non-violent methods favored by President Mahmoud Abbas.

"The [military] resistance of Hamas is a means to an end, it is not a goal by itself," Meshaal said. "Popular resistance is another option, as is diplomacy, work in the media arena, and to try to make the occupation pay the price of its crimes in the legal arena."

Hamas would be open in principle to negotiations with Israel, Meshaal affirmed, though the reality on the ground today made such talks pointless. "The most important condition for negotiation to succeed is the balance of power, because without [it]... no peace can be achieved," he said. Attempting to engage the Israelis diplomatically without proper leverage, he argued, meant negotiations "would be turned to begging, begging for the rights of our people."

If the past two years tested Meshaal's political acumen, the challenges ahead appear even more daunting. Extricating Hamas from Damascus was only the first step: Meshaal still must grapple with an escalating regional war in Syria, fellow Palestinian leaders that mistrust his intentions, and Israeli and American governments looking to destroy Hamas rather than negotiate with it. But with a new array of allies and a firm grip over Gaza, Meshaal seems keen to present Hamas as a movement with a rightful place on the international stage -- and one that can't be ignored by the other players in the Arab world, as much as they may want to.

"We are not fanatic killers. We are not bloodthirsty people," Meshaal said. "We are not against the Israelis because they hold a different faith, or because they are from a different race. Our problem with them is because they are occupiers of our land. When the occupation ends, we will work according to our values and our ethics.... And those values are democracy, justice, human rights, and respect for our diverse world."

Mohammed al-Hams/Khaled Meshaal's Office of Media via Getty Images