Jon Stewart in Cairo isn't just about laughs

American comedian Jon Stewart sat down with Bassem Youssef, the host of Egypt's most popular satire show, last night, swapping jokes but also concern about free speech in Egypt.

AP Photo
American comedian Jon Stewart appeared on Egypt's most popular satire show on Friday.

Egyptian and American political satire met head on last night, as US comedian Jon Stewart appeared on Egypt’s most popular comedy show, hosted by Bassem Youssef, to discuss freedom of speech and the power of satire in a fledgeling democratic context.

Youssef’s weekly show, El Bernameg, is modeled on Stewart’s The Daily Show. Attracting an estimated 30 million viewers across the Middle East, the 39-year old Egyptian uses his wry brand of humor to heavily criticize the government of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

In last night’s episode, Stewart was bundled on stage wearing a black hood and introduced to the audience as a captured foreign spy, a tongue-in-cheek reference to frequent claims by the Egyptian government that agents of western governments are destabilizing the country.

The American met with cheers as he addressed the crowd in rehearsed Arabic, saying “please sit down, I am a simple man who does not like to be fussed over.”

Stewart’s three-day visit to Cairo comes as he takes a summer break from his famous comedy newscast, The Daily Show. He is in the Middle East to work on his first film, which is based on the memoir of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari.

During the interview, Youssef and Stewart touched on a range of topics, from the American’s battles with Fox News to Cairene traffic problems.

But the clearest message came when Stewart praised his Egyptian counterpart for using humor to challenge state authority. He said Youssef’s success shows that “satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out a space in the country for people to express themselves.”

Although the two comedians attract regular comparisons - the international media fondly refers to Youssef as ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’ - many see the analogy as misguided. Their jokes are cracked in very different political contexts and unlike El Bernameg, The Daily Show has never faced investigation by the state.

Youssef himself argued as much in an interview earlier this year. “I love Jon Stewart, and I will never shy away from the fact that he is a role-model,” he told the Guardian. “But the show is different in so many ways; we are at a different stage in building our country. Stewart is in a much more stable environment, a much more established democracy."

Youssef’s rise to fame and the focus of state investigation is an allegory for Egypt’s political progress since its 2011 revolution. The former heart surgeon volunteered in makeshift medical centers during the uprising, before using the country’s apparent new freedoms to upload his own videos to YouTube, poking fun at the country’s political leaders.

Today, the satirist's hit television show has drawn over 30 million viewers and he was included in Time Magazine's 2013 list of the world's most influential people. His entry was penned by Stewart, who described the Egyptian as his hero.

But this surge in attention has been accompanied by the more unwelcome gaze of Egypt’s authorities. In April, Youssef was interrogated for allegedly insulting Islam and President Mohamed Morsi. His arrest came amid a wider crackdown on media figures and opposition activists, drawing international condemnation.

Stewart used last night’s interview to send a message to Egypt’s authorities, telling the audience: “If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime.”

“A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas through a group of people in the park,” he said, in a thinly veiled reference to Egyptian government crackdowns on street protests.

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