Bassem Youssef, Egypt’s version of Jon Stewart, was arrested last weekend in Cairo, the latest and most public step in a growing crackdown by the country’s Islamist rulers on all forms of dissent. Youssef’s alleged crimes include, among other things, “insulting the president.” He has a history of poking fun at Mohammed Morsi—and long before the Muslim Brotherhood leader took power as President of Egypt.
During a visit to the set of Youssef’s popular satirical show, El Bernameg, last spring, I watched professional make-up artists transform him from a middle-aged cardio-thoracic surgeon who first found his comedic voice on YouTube (GOOG) into a succession of Egypt’s would-be rulers. The skit was designed to highlight the absurdity of the various presidential candidates’ electoral platforms, and Youssef’s impersonation of the bearded, bespectacled Morsi was eerily accurate and no less entertaining for it.
After taping, he acknowledged that the episode was likely to “really p— people off.” But he might not have anticipated that his latest Morsi impersonation, riffing off the president’s oversized black-and-yellow hat at an awards ceremony in Pakistan, would lead to a prosecutor’s office and hours of questioning. That said, Youssef is nothing but prescient. I asked him last March where he saw himself in five years’ time. “Jail,” he responded. His expectations may well be fulfilled sooner than that—but for now he is free on a $2,200 bail.
I spoke to Youssef on Monday after he was released, and he sounded remarkably relaxed on his way back to the office. “I have no intention of giving up my work,” he says. For what it’s worth, he has the support of his role model, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart, who stood up for his comedic doppelgänger last night on The Daily Show. “What are you worried about?” he demanded of Morsi. “You’re the president of Egypt, you have an army! He has puns and a show, you have tanks and planes!”
What Morsi lacks is a sense of humor.