Interview

Chief of the Band

From showman to president, Haiti's Michel Martelly insists he's in charge. But can he lead his fractured country out of crisis?

It is hardly the best of times for Haiti's President Michel Martelly. His finance minister, widely praised for her rectitude, resigned in April, citing "lack of solidarity." The U.S. State Department's country report remarked on Haiti's "near absence of the rule of law," and "chronic, severe corruption in all branches of government." And more than three years after a devastating earthquake killed more than 200,000 people, the World Food Program says that two-thirds of Haiti's 10 million people are still "food insecure." It's the only place on the planet to have a U.N. peacekeeping force without an actual war. But in a late April interview Martelly, the former singer known as "Sweet Mickey," insisted that things are getting better. "I've always been a winner. I don't expect to transform Haiti overnight." Excerpts, edited and condensed for clarity, follow:

Foreign Policy: You've just completed two full years in office. Did you ever expect to be marking this anniversary? Your swearing-in was the first time in 207 years of Haitian history that an incumbent president peacefully transferred power to someone outside their party.

Michel Martelly: It was not peaceful. They kicked me out in the first round. I was the one they called the bad boy. But my people -- the people of Haiti -- said they wanted a bad boy because too many good boys had been president before and not enough things had been done.

FP: But the point is that you have completed two full years in office. Did you ever expect to be marking this anniversary, to be sitting here as president two years later?

MM: Certainly. Haiti is not as unstable as they claim. Many times, the instability in Haiti has been sponsored by foreigners.

FP: How much of the political stability of the last two years can be credited to the presence of the nearly 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force?

MM: It's very important to have that force here. But they have not had to interfere in internal affairs. We haven't had any riots.

FP: When do you want them to leave?

MM: As a true Haitian, I wish they had never come. But due to bad governance, at that special moment, we needed the force to intervene. Today, they should be thinking of reviewing the mission. Because it was a mission of maintaining peace in Haiti. I suggest that before they leave they turn this mission into a development mission. Haiti is not the most insecure country in the region. The [U.S.] Attorney General Eric Holder was in Haiti and he cited the most insecure countries -- Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Haiti wasn't even third. And yet, because we are kind of unstable, because we're the one with the foreign force here, and because we do not have our own force to take control of insecurity and because we're economically dependent, it makes us a very insecure country.

FP: More than 320,000 people live in tent cities three years after the earthquake; 56 percent of your people live on less than $1 per day; Haiti is 98 percent deforested; 70 percent unemployed; and has the lowest energy access in the Caribbean. What are your priorities?

MM: Before I pick one or two, I should say the whole stage was set to maintain the exploitation of Haiti, the poverty of Haiti. We need to tell the world that we no longer need assistance. The Haiti that had its hands out, begging, that Haiti no longer exists. This Haiti wants to work.

FP: But 90 percent of your development budget is from foreign aid, so it's not like you're turning away handouts. 

MM: I tell my people all the time, if you plant a tree today, you will have to wait five years to be able to enjoy the shade. I'm not expecting great changes today. I'm setting the stage.... Presidents from any country come to Haiti; they just land and say ‘Hey, what's up? We're here for the summit,' without asking ‘Do you have security,' ‘Do you have armored cars,' ‘I'm going to send my army,' ‘I'm going to send my private security people.' It shows that Haiti is a regular country.

FP: Amnesty International alleges that people have been forcibly evicted from tent cities.

MM: There are always allegations. I don't do allegations. It's not true.... Anyways, let's get into rule of law. No one can deny that I'm the very first one who wants rule of law and equitable justice for every single Haitian. When I came to power we didn't have a president of the Supreme Court for seven years. The first thing I did, I put one. For seven years, we were lacking six judges in the Supreme Court. I nominated them. I put in place the Superior Council of the Judiciary, which gives the judiciary its independence.  

FP: Will you be able to re-house everyone in tent cities during your term in office?

MM: Every president would like to transform it into reality because it would be political capital for him, a great success. But the idea is not to rush. By rushing I would do it wrong and open the door for Amnesty International and all our friends to come and say that things are being done the wrong way. Yes we're going to do it but the idea is to do it right and so it's time-consuming. Because we need to either build homes, restore homes, and identify the people living in the tents. But it's costly so we need to identify money and take the time. From 1.5 million people under the tents, to be able to reduce it to 257,000, that's a great effort. Of course, even one person living under a tent is too much. We just finished signing another contract with Venezuela for 4,400 homes. Of course, 4,400 homes can probably accommodate, at most, 20,000 people.

FP: Are cholera cases rising or falling?

MM: Falling.

FP: The Haitian Ministry of Health website says that there were roughly 5,000 more cholera cases between January and April this year than the same period last year?

MM: 5,000 more? I'm not aware of these numbers.

FP: Why was the Haitian government not a party to the legal case against the U.N., seeking compensation for the cholera victims?

MM: I was never asked to be a party. I was not aware of that lawsuit.

FP: Might you file a case against the U.N.?

MM: I won't say that I might or might not. I will consult my jurists and take the right decision at the right time. Sometimes you don't just focus on what you want. What you want might have consequences for so many other things. Let's say we cherish the work that we do with the U.N. -- we might still want to do the lawsuit and, at the same time, work to make sure relations with the U.N. do not deteriorate. It's not about choosing where the next performance is, I'm no longer a singer. I'm leading a country.

FP: Your government declares that Haiti is open for business. The World Bank ranks Haiti as 174 of 184 countries for ease of doing business. A stampede of investors is heading for Myanmar, until recently an international pariah. Not so Haiti. Why?

MM: Can you believe that our partners, who are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in Haiti, suggest not to come to Haiti? What sense does that make? Why invest in something you don't believe in? We don't want donations. Right now, we're not allowed to borrow money because our debt has been erased, but later, we'd like to borrow a big sum to do developmental work. Of course, no one may give us the money because we have proved in the past that we are incapable of managing money. But help us manage it. Show us. Tell us who to hire. Come and fix the institutions with us. But at the end of the day, what do we want? For you to be right, for us to be wrong. We want things to change. 

FP: You say you're not a singer anymore, you lead a country...

MM: No, no, I don't sing anymore but I will die a singer. Even my governing is like managing my band. Every one of my ministers is an instrument-player and I, the chief of the band, I'm making sure that each instrument does something different, but the whole thing is my vision, what I want, that is pleasing the people. 

CLAUDIO SANTANA/AFP/Getty Images

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