Egyptians packed cafes Friday to watch the return of famed TV satirist Bassem Youssef, wondering if he would dare to mock the army that toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
After four months off the air, Youssef — known as ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’ after modelling his show on the US comedian’s popular fake news programme — returned after a summer break to an Egypt fiercely split between supporters of the military and Islamist backers of the ousted Morsi.
A tide of resurgent nationalism has swept the country, with military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi hailed by supporters as the nation’s saviour for driving Morsi from power and launching a deadly crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Youssef, who had regularly mocked Morsi and was even prosecuted for insulting the then-president, might have been expected to cheer the military coup, which came amid massive protests against the year-long rule of Egypt’s first freely elected president.
But in the 90-minute return of his show “Al-Bernameg” (“The Programme”), Youssef did not spare the military his barbs, provoking fury from some spectators.
Youssef mocked the Egyptian media’s coverage of Morsi’s overthrow, particularly the exaggerated claims about the number of demonstrators who took to the streets on June 30 — local television stations said as many as 70 million — to call for the Islamist government’s resignation.
He also touched on a highly sensitive question for Egyptians: was Morsi’s fall a popular revolution, as backers of the military claim, or was it a coup, as the ousted president’s supporters say?
Referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, he said that “when you have been dreaming of power for 80 years and all of a sudden you lose it, then it’s a coup.”
But looking at the other side, he mocked the idea of a gentle coup, acting out a scene in which soldiers hand Morsi a red rose, saying: “Morsi, baby, you’re not president any more … It’s not us, it’s you”.
The ex-heart surgeon then turned his attention to the country’s military-installed interim government, in which Adly Mansour is the nominal president but Sisi is widely seen as calling the shots.
“Sisi-mania” has gripped Egypt since the coup, with the general staring out from posters across the country and even looking up from chocolates named after him.
Youssef soon found that mocking the Sisi craze is not to everyone’s taste.
Sisi’s supporters view him as defending the nation from the Muslim Brotherhood, whom they deride as “terrorists,” and point to a string of deadly attacks on security forces since Morsi’s July 3 overthrow.
Sameh Seif al-Yazal, a former strategy expert for the army, called Youssef’s act a “direct attack against General Sisi” that would “benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Within 24 hours of the broadcast, several legal complaints had been filed with the attorney general, including one by members of a group calling for Sisi to be president.
In a cafe in the Moqattam neighbourhood, where the Muslim Brotherhood had its headquarters before the building was torched last summer, Cairo banker Ramy Adel came out to watch El-Bernameg with friends, but did not like what he saw.
“It seems it has no objective or purpose except making fun of the current ruling regime,” he said.
“He wanted to defame the prestige of Sisi and the army … This is awful.”
Morsi supporters meanwhile criticised his swipes at the country’s Islamist leaders, virtually all of whom have been jailed since the president’s fall, including Morsi himself.
Leila Ibrahim, who backs Morsi, said Youssef “isn’t a comedian, he is a clown.”
“It was shameful that Bassem mocked the imprisoned Islamist leader,” she said, calling it a “cowardly action to make fun of those who can’t defend themselves.”
Others, however, were please by what they saw as Youssef’s balance.
Ahmed Abdel Aleem, who supports neither the army nor the Brotherhood, said “Bassem criticised all political players, including Sisi. No one dares to do that.”
Egypt has a rich tradition of political humour despite having been ruled by autocrats for most of its history, and its comedies have drawn theatre-goers from across the Arab world for decades.
But tensions are running high in the country, with more than a thousand people — mainly Morsi backers — having been killed in street clashes and militant attacks since the beginning of July.
Social media lit up with widely varying opinions on Youssef’s return, with some Facebook groups even calling for his arrest.
Youssef himself took to Twitter, responding drily to his critics: “Egyptians like jokes and irony, it’s true, but especially when they match their own ideas.”