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Fear of the clown

Why bother?

Why does someone like Bassem Youssef, who is continuously described by the regime and its supporters as a “clown,” “varmint,” “dirty” or “vile,” still scare the regime?

While this condescending discourse may seem careless, it reveals a regime that not only cares, but is highly concerned.

This discourse speaks to a condition of fear that is at a level beyond intolerance. Instead of sending Youssef to jail, which would create a fuss, the regime silenced him by sending him home.

Youssef was sent home after hopping between different television channels where he consistently negotiated his ability to maintain his show’s integrity. Once, he was shown the door by the local, privately owned CBC channel, owned by business stalwart and current regime loyalist Mohamed al-Amin. After a long interruption, Youssef managed to return, but only on non-Egyptian channels, namely the Saudi Arabian MBC and the German DW.  

But the regime was still pressuring him in different ways to soften his criticism of the military institution and its public face, recently elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Youssef finally declared the end of his show because of the unbearable threats to his security and that of his family.

It is precisely because Youssef is a clown that he is able to scare the regime.

Youssef’s charisma and sense of humor, together with his successful team, contributed to making Al-Bernameg one of the greatest political satire shows broadcast in Arabic. But is this really enough to cause such a bother for the regime?

The answer lies in the weak state. I always thought of the state as a fragile structure going through a continuous dismantling, which counters the dominant analysis insisting on the return of an oppressive, strong state. A state that uses massive physical coercion, a state that is scared by a television show, is indeed a fragile state.

There are other reasons, both subtle and obvious, that explain why a clown could scare the Egyptian state. This was how I discovered Bassem Youssef in Michel Foucault’s studies of power.

“Power is not a commodity,” and no one can own it, says Foucault. From this point of departure, the revolution could be seen as aiming at dismantling the networks of political and economic power that formed the basis of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The revolution managed to penetrate these networks and seize substantial tributaries in order to re-channel them to an alternative network. The state still controlled the major flow, but the revolution was making progress toward the core network of power. The main function of all post-Mubarak governments, whether military or Muslim Brotherhood, was to reorient these tributaries toward the new/old system in order to accumulate power in the hands of the state, and to seal all the gaps the revolution managed to create. To do so, they needed to implement certain discourses and techniques of power, which Youssef has actively challenged.

First, these governments deployed a discourse of historical continuity of heroism. “I protected the revolution, I made it succeed,” the army leaders perpetually propagated ever since February 11, 2011, the date Mubarak was deposed. This was not to establish a partnership with the revolutionaries. It was rather an appropriation of the revolution by the state, whose logic could be read as, “I protected the revolution. That’s not something new. I’ve always been the protector of this country. I established the Egyptian state, I made it survive and win wars.”

This discourse constitutes the premise for two intermingling foundational hypotheses. One: I have the right to rule. Two: I alone have this right to rule. And this unconditional right to rule is not embedded in the basic rights or sovereignty theory, but rather in the theories of medieval, pre-modern land and conquest. “History conceals nature,” as Foucault puts it.

Accordingly, it is not really surprising to see an overflow of statist literature written and propagated everyday by the Egyptian elite. For one, an Egyptian Michigan-educated political scientist wrote “we are still in the stage of [Thomas] Hobbes” to defend the impunity of the army and its right to rule and kill, which transcends Hobbes and goes back to the more basic conquest theory.

This historical continuity of heroism is the parallel of the divine holiness that Islamists claimed to represent and monopolize — although in a country like Egypt, the latter proved to be more easily dismantled than the former.

So, what does Youssef have to do with all of this?

His satire conveys important messages. One of them is that there is no such continuity of heroism. His work could amount to what Foucault calls “counter history,” or what I’d rather call alternative history. This alternative history implies that military leaders are not gods. They did do good things, but they were humiliatingly defeated sometimes. And most importantly, they ruled for 60 years, and hence they bear a core responsibility for all the injustices and deterioration society has been suffering from.

When Youssef holds that (in)famous, hilariously laughable antenna that a military scientist claimed diagnoses HIV and Hepatitis C, when he theatrically makes fun of it, he doesn’t simply criticize the army. In fact, he scares the regime, because his satire constructs a gesture of counter history.

Unfortunately, the Egyptian revolution could not, until now, establish a strong discursive apparatus that could make this nascent alternative history thrive. Such counter history has only been found in the discourse of groups and revolutionary circles that, though small, were enough to spark the January 25 protests.

Another pertinent reason why Youssef scares them is because his satirical work intelligently neglects the play of intentions. In political analysis, intentions are irrelevant. The analysis of intentions is a “labyrinth,” as Foucault describes it. It is the aim of any despot to take us to this labyrinth. Mubarak used to talk about his intentions and willingness to sincerely serve the country, for example. It is thus irrelevant to analyze the army at the level of intentions it had for the June 30, 2013 move to oust the Brotherhood from power. It is also irrelevant to analyze the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood as rulers, because they never tried to contribute to counter history — indeed, they did the opposite. The Muslim Brotherhood gave more grounds for the discourse of historical continuity which the army tried to deploy, because they propagated the notion of the ruler as a dual-functioning pastor/priest, or pastor/sheikh in our context. This notion is firmly grounded in the Brotherhood’s patriarchal attempts to hegemonize religion.

Another reason why Youssef scares the military could be found in the role of fantasy, as David Howarth describes it based on the works of Slavoj Zizek and others. The army uses fantasy to give its supporters certain signifiers of identify, such as with Sisi’s famous saying, “Masr umm al-dunya, wa hateb’a add al-dunya” (Egypt is the mother of the world and will be the size of the world). These signifiers that dwell more in fantasy than in reality are not arbitrary. And what could be more effective to construct a counter-fantasy than sarcasm and theater? This is also what Youssef does with perfection.

More reasons why Youssef scares them could be understood through the work of Jürgen Habermas on the public sphere. Bassem plays in the domain of cynicism and criticism, while trying to avoid indulging in demonization and de-humanization. And this is the opposite of how the statist discourses of (in)security function.

Finally, the clown’s discourse is largely an oral monology. Therefore, it challenges the state using its same logic: monological discourse that does not engage in any dialogue. A monological discourse essentially claims exclusive ownership of truth, and it is this type of discourse that unfortunately dominates paternalistic societies’ thinking in their efforts to exclude others and suppress differences. Hisham Sharabi dissected this discourse in his groundbreaking work, “Neopatriarchy,” as one of the structural features of failed modernization. A clown’s oral monology hence contributes an oral counter-narrative as a point of departure toward building a critical mindset.  

Wherever you go, from Egypt to Jordan or Morocco, you find thousands of followers waiting for Youssef’s Friday show. The success Youssef achieved should teach us a lot about how a revolution can possibly channel power to new networks.

It is indeed a clown that can scare the state, because Youssef is not a political party, nor is he an interest group that mobilizes people for certain causes. Youssef is a clown, and a clown is a discursive apparatus by definition. He talks less, but every movement of his body carries a set of practices and discourses. His main field is the theater, and thus his discourse is primarily a theatrical one that competes with and dismantles the posed theatrical reality. By virtue of these characteristics, a clown is a figure perhaps best suited to challenge power in a way that the state cannot deal with, using the same techniques it employs in its disciplinary power, or arbitrary sovereignty against dissent.

If the army seems to be more powerful than ever, it is because the revolution has, until now, lost the battle over the discursive apparatus more than anything else.

The author would like to thank Mark Levine, visiting professor at Lund University’s Center for Middle East Studies, for inspiring this article.