Bassem Youssef at Mada crop
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Virginie Nguyen
Bassem Youssef

Bassem Youssef to return to airwaves from the US

After his runaway hit show “Al-Bernameg” (The Program) was forced off air in the summer of 2014, political satirist Bassem Youssef is planning a return to the airwaves.

On Wednesday he announced his new show, “The Democracy Handbook,” would debut in spring 2016 out of the United States. Dozens of five-minute episodes have been ordered to air on F-Comedy (a division of the Fusion Digital Entertainment network) on topics including the American presidential elections, immigration, gun control and the freedom of speech, Youssef told the Mashable news site.

The show “will follow Youssef as he comes to America to learn the lessons of democracy, so he can import them back to the Middle East — but learns our democracy isn’t quite as great as he thought,” reported the Splitsider online magazine.

“It’s the journey of me trying to figure out how we can learn from the people,” Youssef told Mashable. “It’s going to be informative and funny, because there is both a dark side of democracy and a funny side.”

However, Youssef said he is anxious about taping the show in English, and focusing on issues in the United States rather than Egypt.

“I’m very worried that people will say the show has someone not American talking about American issues, or back home people thinking, ‘Oh, this joke was directed at us’,” he explained. “But I hope people take away how democratic policies work as we uncover the 50 shades of democracy. We want to explore those shades and put it all out there. It’s more of a dialogue between us and the people.”

Youssef has been living in the US since early 2015, when he began a residential fellowship at Harvard University’s JFK School of Government.

On his personal Twitter account, Youssef wrote about his dilemma regarding critical political commentary. “If you speak your mind in Egypt the response is: If you don’t like the country, then leave. And when you travel and object from abroad the response is: You don’t live in Egypt, so why are you talking about it.”

While residing in the US, the 41-year-old doctor-turned-comedian has found a larger margin of freedom to speak his mind.

In an interview with CNN in December 2015, Youssef strongly criticized the Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump and his provocative suggestion to ban Muslims from the United States. “Trump hates Muslims unless they have very deep pockets," the Egyptian satirist wryly commented.

“I didn’t know that Donald Trump was fluent in Nazi,” he added in a tweet

Youssef did not have the same margin of freedom to discuss Egypt’s political leadership, particularly since his show was forced to relocate from one satellite channel to another before ending in June 2014.

Youssef was a vocal critic of the Mubarak regime and the Muslim Brotherhood as soon as “Al-Bernameg” launched shortly after the 2011 uprising. The weekly talk show had tens of millions of Egyptian viewers, making it one of the country’s most highly watched TV shows.

Lawsuits claiming Youssef was slandering former President Mohamed Morsi on air were filed in early 2013, but were ultimately dropped.

When Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power at the hands of the military on July 3, 2013, Youssef had an even narrower margin of freedom in which to express political opinions.

By March 2014, “Al-Bernameg” reportedly had its signal disrupted in an official act of electronic jamming. The Saudi-owned MBC satellite channel then moved to suspend Youssef’s show in May 2014 under the pretext of avoiding any influence on the upcoming presidential elections.

By June of that year, Youssef told several local media outlets that he would pull the plug on “Al-Bernameg” after threats began to pour in against him and his family. He maintained that he would not seek to broadcast “Al-Bernameg” from Western countries, as it was an Egyptian show dealing with domestic issues and thus should only be broadcast from Egypt.

Youssef is often described in Western media outlets as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, in reference to the American satirist who served as the anchor for “The Daily Show” — a comedic news show which clearly influenced “Al-Bernameg.”

In 2013, Time Magazine listed Youssef as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. In tribute to the Egyptian satirist, Stewart wrote: “The only real difference between him and me is that he performs his satire in a country still testing the limits of its hard-earned freedom, where those who speak out against the powerful still have much to fear.”

“I am an American satirist,” Stewart concluded, “and Bassem Youssef is my hero.”