In the US with Bassem Youssef
BY H. A. HELLYER
“We’re going to have some great material,” said Bassem Youssef, Egyptian political satirist after hearing the results of the first round of the 2012 presidential election.
I knew June was going to be a rather dull time in Egypt. In the same way I knew that taking a research sabbatical for a few months in December 2010 in Cairo was the quietest way to spend the winter.
So, I opted to go to the US for a month to advise on a new television show with a little known political satirist named Bassem Youssef. Well, as little known in the Arab world as, say, Jon Stewart is in the US. Something a little different — but like I said, Egypt was going to be so dull in June.
I’d love to write more about that new television show “America in Arabic.” In fact, I’d like to write more, but I’m just the SME for the show. Some people think that means “Subject Matter Expert,” but it actually means “Supreme Mastery of Everything.” Obviously, it’s going to be about America. And it’s going to be in Arabic. Well, mostly. Think of it as the next edition of Sayyid Qutb’s visit to the USA — just funnier, and with way less trauma.
In the course of the last month, the crew and I met with a whole slew of fascinating people and engaged with an eclectic cross-section of the Arab-American community (and some others). That’s ranged from singers, to stand-up comedians, to business entrepreneurs, to civil society activists, to religious preachers. And there were quite a few people who were at least two or three of those at the same time. Muslims, Christians, Jews and others, young and old, not to mention those who thought they were one, but are actually the other.
It is a fascinating experience. Bassem’s performed in three parts of the country so far. Wherever he went, Egyptian-Americans went. In droves. Partly to listen to him talk, and partly to find out if the beard he’s sporting means that he has finally succumbed and given his oath of allegiance to the Murshid, the Supreme Guide, of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yes, sarcasm. Please, “liberal” Tweeps, don’t freak out. Not yet, anyway. Wait till the end.
That Egyptian-American community is made up of so many different types of communities. There are those who have been in the US since the 1970s, or before, and those who arrived in the last few years. There are immigrants who long to go back to Egypt, and then those who are American born and know no other country than their own: America. There are those who are Christian, and those who are Muslim. (And then people who wear both crescents and crosses around their necks just to confuse Egyptians from Egypt. As if Egyptians aren’t confused enough already. They only need to watch the news to get a migraine, or worse, question their own sanity.)
And of course, there are those who voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who used to be in jail; and those who voted for the other guy who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, and who may go to jail in the future. (Go on vacation, Ahmed Shafik, but: ‘the MB’s gonna get you, the MB’s gonna get you, the MB’s gonna get youuuuu.’)
In each city, Bassem was asked: Who would you vote for? It won’t come as any surprise to anyone who watched a single episode of his show in the past year that he publicly said it would be tremendously difficult for him to consider voting Shafik. But here’s the easy way out — in order to vote in the runoff while you’re abroad, you have to be pre-registered two months ahead of time with the Egyptian consulate or embassy. So, I don’t think Bassem Youssef actually voted at all — he wouldn’t have been able to.
I can hear the boycott crew celebrate: “He’s one of us!”
In the last few days, it has become clear: Mubarak is clinically alive (right?), the Egyptian presidency is clinically functional, the Egyptian parliament is clinically dismissed (well, it was a few minutes ago; don’t blame me if that changes by the time you read this, seeing as things do change a wee bit in Egypt), and Mohamed Morsi is not a clinical doctor, so he’s pretty much suited to the whole thing.
That Egyptian-American community heard a particular message in every single event. It wasn’t a rehearsed message — and it wasn’t a carefully crafted one. (God knows I tried.) It was a heartfelt one, which I saw evident and clear on Bassem’s face, whether on “The Daily Show” as a guest with Jon Stewart , or with the various fans that came to see him perform.
Bassem’s message was as follows (cue poetic license, as well as my right as author to throw some spin, and if you don’t like it, you can try to sue me in an Egyptian court because you have about 30 years to kill): the revolution continues, regardless of who is president, because that’s the way it is. Unite, and don’t be divided: because that’s what makes Egypt what it is. Respect the other for his or her choice, even if you made a different one — because that’s revolutionary. You don’t need to agree, but try to understand why anyway, even if the other side doesn’t or won’t. Break out of your bubbles, because we’ve lived in our bubbles for too long.
And have hope, because as difficult as things may look, as troubling as they may be and as complex as they may appear, the people of Egypt truly accomplished some miracles in the past two years. Never doubt that.
(Note to Western pundits: the Egyptians accomplished those miracles without Western assistance. Your complaints about their present predicament are very much wanted, as much as Hazem Abu Ismail is wanted in Naguib Sawiris’ party.)
The revolution continues. And in the finest Egyptian tradition, with quite a few jokes.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region and was previously at Gallup, the Brookings Institution & Warwick University. Find him at www.hahellyer.com or on Twitter: @hahellyer.