Bassem YoussefPhoto courtesy Mustapha Azab

Talk Like an Egyptian

Former Egyptian TV comedy host Bassem Youssef brings one-man show to Eugene

Bassem Youssef is enjoying life in Los Angeles, where he now lives. He says his oldest child is attending a public school and gets to experience a far more diverse classroom than in Egypt.  

What’s better for Youssef is that he doesn’t have to worry about getting arrested by the Muslim Brotherhood. 

Youssef hosted a political satire show in Egypt, called Al Bernameg, which used comedy to criticize the country’s ruling powers and had a viewership of about 40 million on television and internet. The show was canceled due to political pressure when he targeted former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, his poor English and a big hat. Morsi demanded Youssef’s arrest for insulting Islam and the presidency and for disrupting public order and peace. 

Youssef, whom many call the Jon Stewart (former host of The Daily Show) of the Arab world, is coming to Eugene. He’ll bring his one-man show, which combines storytelling, standup comedy and performance, to the Hult Center. 

The performance will explore living in a dictatorship in Egypt, the hope of the Arab Spring revolution falling by the wayside, and then coming to the U.S. only to see a similar atmosphere of fear of living in a dictatorship. 

 “It’ll be relevant if you’re an immigrant or an American, especially with the times of people living here,” he says. 

Ever since Youssef came to the U.S. three years ago, he’s been working on his standup comedy, which he says has been difficult since not only does he have to deal being a nonnative English speaker, but he also has to deal with the idiosyncrasies of American comedy.  

“It’s been interesting learning experience for me trying to make it here after everything was taken away from me back home,” he says. “At the same time very terrifying.” 

The performance will include observations and reflections of the rise of the right-wing in America and Egyptian state-run media, which Youssef has found to have some commonalities with his home. 

“For both of them, facts don’t mean anything. It’s all about ideology and rhetoric. Lie constantly without shame. Even when getting caught, they justify it that it is for the best of the country,” he says. “They have a way accusing anyone who criticizes the country of being anti-patriotic — not being American or Egyptian enough.” 

In addition to calling into question one’s patriotism, each country’s nationalist media outlets use religion a lot, he adds. 

“As if these people are camping in a church  — and they don’t care,” he says. “It’s like for them being Christian is a way to set themselves apart. It’s the same way with right-wing media in Egypt, who are now not religious at all but again would use Islam as a way to set themselves apart.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood — which Youssef says isn’t democratic at all — called themselves the best Muslims. After the military overthrew Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the military began to use religion, too. 

“The whole thing with military using religion makes sense,” he says. “If you disobey or challenge authority of God, the next step is military leader.” 

Religion is basically a layer of protection, he adds. 

President Donald Trump has often used religion in campaign rally speeches, and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions even set up a “religious freedom task force” — and a recent biography of Vice President Mike Pence referred to him as a Christian supremacist. 

Youssef says Trump isn’t a dictator, although he’s got some dictatorial characteristics, because Trump is ultimately accountable to elections. 

“You cannot remove a dictator through elections,” Youssef says. “Of course he has the traits of an authoritarian figure. He hates the media. He uses populist rhetoric. He incites fear. He lies constantly. But at the end of the day, at least we have a system that can contain this.” 

Youssef says Trump was crippled after the midterm elections by losing the House of Representatives, and he’ll have to be re-elected in 2020 to stay in power. 

Trump is causing a lot of damage, Youssef adds. But this damage can be reversed in the long run. 

And Youssef sees some hope for the U.S. He says young people are starting to get more active in politics and references the Parkland High School students’ anti-gun activism. He adds that “Reagan country” in Orange County, California, elected Democratic candidates. 

Yet he says he fears a conservative setback to the Democratic Party wins, like when former President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and Republicans took over local elections for the next eight years.