Egypt's challenge: Free to speak

Satirist Bassem Youssef was charged with insulting the president and Islam

Under the Mubarak regime, the state closely monitored all forms of political and religious expression in Egypt. Now all that has changed and millions are watching a proliferation of satellite TV channels. Shaimaa Khalil reports on the new voices in the second part of her series Egypt's Challenge.

Talat Harb street is in the heart of central Cairo. It is just three minutes away from Tahrir Square where the Egyptian revolution erupted two years ago and it is where you will find one of Cairo's historic landmarks, the Cinema Radio building.

Abandoned for years, the classic building has been refurbished and is the venue for the TV show of Egypt's most famous political satirist, Bassem Youssef.

Start Quote

Bassem Youssef - 30/03/2013

If you're talking about something that might be a little bit offensive or obscene, what about what's happening in the political scene? Everything is obscene”

End Quote Bassem Youssef TV satirist

A heart surgeon by profession, he started his show - El-Bernameg or The Programme - just after the revolution, broadcasting it on YouTube from his bedroom. Now he claims to have an audience of 30 million.

Egypt's new Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi is one of his favourite targets for jokes; under Mubarak this would never have been allowed.

In one skit the satirist wears an oversized academic hat to mock a similar one Mr Morsi wore during a recent trip to Pakistan. On a tour of his new set, he tells me he has no intention of stopping.

"I don't know how far can I go," he said.

"We're having our playground and we're playing as much as we can until somebody actually calls it all off, or who knows, maybe freedom of speech will prevail - which is basically a fairy tale wishing to happen."

Mr Youssef argues that what he says on his show is only a reflection of what goes on in Egypt's politics.

"If you're talking about something that might be a little bit offensive or obscene, what about what's happening in the political scene? Everything is obscene," he said.

"If it's shocking it's because the whole of political life is shocking."

Find out more

Shaimaa Khalil
  • Listen to Shaimaa Khalil's documentary Egypt's Challenge on the BBC World Service Tuesday 30 April at 08:05, 14:32 and 19:05 GMT

A recent presidential jibe however was a jibe too far and he was briefly arrested and released on bail on charges of insulting Islam and President Morsi.

The arrest hit the headlines both at home and abroad, with questions being asked about the new government's willingness to tolerate free speech.

'Serving Islam'

On the outskirts of Cairo, in Egypt's Media Production City, is the small studio of al-Hafez Salafi channel.

On this station, it is not humour that attracts audiences but a mixture of politics and conservative Islamic rhetoric where presenters and guests often call for an Islamic state and Sharia law in Egypt.

And like Bassem Youssef's programme, al-Hafez is no stranger to controversy.

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Atef Abdel Rasheed

This is religious media, we're tied to God, we serve Allah”

End Quote Atef Abdel Rasheed Owner of al-Hafez TV

In February this year, the channel caused outrage when a Muslim scholar said, live on air, that according to Islamic teachings, members of the opposition should be killed.

The government took the threat so seriously that it ordered 24-hour police protection for key opposition figures.

But the owner and main presenter of the channel, Atef Abdel Rasheed, denied that a fatwa had been issued and said the scholar's words were taken out of context.

"He didn't say that," said Mr Abdel Rasheed. "He said this was a general edict that is in Sharia and in the prophet's Hadith or teachings that says whoever rebels against or opposes the leader or the Imam or the Emir of Muslims, he should be fought."

"But he (the scholar) went on to say, and we discussed it with him, that this should not be left to the general public, that it should go to the judiciary, and to the government to decide."

Both the government and al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world's highest authority, condemned the incident.

Mr Abdel Rasheed says the aim of al-Hafez is not political.

"Our aim is to serve the Koran and Sunna [the Prophet's teachings] - so I'm serving Islam," he said.

"I'm not affiliated to any political stream, I'm affiliated to Islam. This is religious media, we're tied to God, we serve Allah."

Atef Abdel Rasheed (right) and guests Al-Hafez TV where presenters and guests often call for an Islamic state and Sharia law in Egypt

Whether it is to serve Islam or to hold those in power to account, the country is definitely experiencing new and unheard of liberties when it comes to free speech.

Al-Hafez channel and Bassem Youssef's programme may be at opposite ends of the free speech spectrum but, what they have in common is that they are able to say pretty much what they want in the new Egypt.

Listen to The Documentary: Egypt's Challenge on Tuesday 30 April on the BBC World Service.

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