By H.A Hellyer
Early on Saturday morning, I received a message that Bassem Youssef, the Arab world's answer to 'Jon Stewart', had been issued a compulsory summons and arrest warrant by the prosecutor-general. The prosecutor-general's office wanted to investigate two charges against him: 'insulting Islam' and 'insulting the president'. All I could do was smile -- because I knew that was exactly what Bassem would be doing as soon as he heard the same.
Almost a year ago, Egyptians went to the polls for their first free presidential election -- the first round delivered what was a nightmare of a result. A representative of the former regime, Ahmad Shafiq, which did nothing but signify a return to the status quo that existed during Hosni Mubarak – and a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation that had shown little commitment to the Egyptian revolution, save as an opportunity to gain power. The day those results came out, I was in Bassem's office. Many of his team were simply stunned at the result. Bassem, on the other hand, just expressed slight surprise -- at all of us. As far as he was concerned, the result just meant one thing -- that they'd have a lot of material for political satire. And the revolution would go on.
A few weeks later, we travelled across the United States together, as we prepared the new show, ‘America in Arabic’ -- the combination of a reality show looking at America through Arab-American and Arab immigrant eyes, and a political satire. There, I understood why Bassem was not so concerned about the presidential results – because for him, the revolution went beyond that. Several times, he was asked in public, ‘what will you do in the second round?’, which took place while we were actually in the U.S. on tour. He never replied directly. Instead, he said,’ I’m not sure, but it would be really difficult for me to vote for Ahmad Shafiq.’ Did that mean he’d vote Morsi? Or boycott? That’s something only Bassem can answer.
But none of that really mattered - what mattered was how he responded to the question. As soon as he confessed his reluctance to vote for a representative of the former regime, he would always follow up with two important points. The first was, ‘But I understand why people who will vote for Ahmad Shafiq will vote for him - and while I may disagree, I can understand it.’ That sort of generosity of spirit, with a clear commitment to the revolution that he himself had fought in, was what made, and makes, Bassem Youssef one of the most consistent, and principled, Egyptian public figures today.
The second thing he said, which comes from the same impetus that this very website was borne out of, was the following. “Whether Shafiq wins, or Morsi wins – the revolution continues. Whoever it is, or whoever else it could have been: the revolution continues.”
I’ve never forgotten he said that. Hearing him say that in crowds in San Francisco, Virginia, New York and Los Angeles, the effect of it was always the same – shivers. His commitment to the revolution of the 25th of January was unwavering – and I believe remains as such. That commitment wasn’t about a particular president, or lack thereof – it was about the changing of Egypt for the better. He understood, and understands, that Egypt’s struggle is still ongoing – and will continue for quite some time. For him, the revolution wasn’t about removing a political figure from power – or indeed, putting another one in place. The revolution was about changing Egypt – and that would take time, and effort.
For the life of me, I cannot really fathom the sense of summoning him to the prosecutor-general. But then, much of what has been applied by the Egyptian state in the past couple of years has been bizarre and peculiar. This government does not seem to understand one crucial point: Bassem Youssef, and all that he does, is actually completely in its benefit. The criticism that Bassem does is more valuable than every single laudatory article that comes out in Ikhwanophilic media – because it is genuine, and it is honest. If Bassem Youssef was to disappear from the airwaves, as it seems many supporters of the government desire, this government would not be stronger – it would be far, far weaker.
Bassem Youssef isn’t an enemy of the Egyptian presidency – he is simply an Egyptian patriot. For that, he ought to be congratulated by supporters of the government – not chastised. If tomorrow morning, when Bassem shows up at the courthouse, he is arrested by the Egyptian state, it will not be Bassem Youssef that loses out. It is going to be this government, and its supporters – because all it is really likely to do, in the final analysis, is give Bassem yet more material. Because one way or the other, he will walk out a free man – and his commitment to the 25th of January revolution will just be more intense.
Dr H.A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. He is the Subject Matter Expert of the new show by Bassem Youssef, ‘America in Arabic’. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com .
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**the picture featured on T2’s homepage was taken by Egyptian photojournalist, Jonathan Rashad on February 11, 2011 in Tahrir Square, Egypt. Rashad’s work can be viewed here: http://flickr.com/drumzo andjonathanrashad.500px.com. You can also follow him on twitter: @JonathanRashad
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