Middle East

Egypt satirist Bassem Youssef on revolutions, superheroes and spies

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Media captionBassem Youssef's guide to the Middle East

"People think that revolutions are easy, but there is no revolution that can happen in 18 days. It's a process, a very long process, it doesn't happen in a few days."

Bassem Youssef is considering the after-effects of Egypt's 2011 revolution. His journey began four years ago as a doctor at the protests against Hosni Mubarak, before he started making satirical YouTube videos in his home.

Nine episodes later he was offered a TV deal and bestowed the title of Egypt's Jon Stewart.

Until last year, Cairo would come to a halt once a week as his wildly popular satirical show mocked the country's rulers.

Now-imprisoned former President Mohammed Morsi was a frequent target, along with Egypt's new strongman President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

This came at a cost; arrest and intimidation that eventually led him to take his show off air and leave the country in June due safety concerns. One rumour in the press was that his now-friend Jon Stewart had attempted to recruit him as a spy.

"I laughed my ass off. It's very funny and what's so funny is that actually some people believe it."

Funny also a bit scary?

"A little uncomfortable, a little uncomfortable, yes. It's crazy what the media can do to people's minds."

Jon Stewart 'pact'

I meet Bassem Youssef at the BBC's headquarters in London. The 41-year-old is bleary eyed, having just stepped off a flight - it's the fourth country he's visited in a week.

A few days beforehand he had appeared on the Daily Show as its Senior Middle East correspondent - a favour that Stewart had returned when appearing on his own show before it was taken off air. They met a few years ago and it was "love at first sight", Youssef gushes.

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Image caption Bassem Youssef (right) has been compared to top-rating US satirist Jon Stewart

So, I ask, who is more famous in Egypt now, him or the original?

"Let's just say Jon Stewart is now more famous than he was four years ago," he laughs.

"It's kinda me and Jon Stewart have a pact together - so he's making me famous in the Western world and I'm making him famous in Egypt!"

Now Youssef tours the world, accepting awards, lecturing at Harvard and finding online talents for his latest venture "Tube Star Network" - a talent discovery and development network based in Dubai.

He ended his TV show in 2014 with the words: "I'm tired of struggling and worrying about my safety and that of my family."

So has anything changed since then?

"Err, I hope it will come back some day, I don't think it will come back now. I don't think the circumstances are suitable for the show to come back, it's really out of my hands."

He becomes even more cagey when asked if it is safe to be a satirist in Egypt.

"Is it safe? Yeah, err, let's hope it safe - how's that for an answer?" he chuckles.

'Unjust planet'

It's a sad, wry chuckle that he frequently deploys about a revolution that does not seem to have delivered on its promise of democracy for all.

"I do think that this planet is a totally unjust planet. I mean throughout history - history paints a beautiful picture when it's written by the victorious, but it's a planet that belongs to the strong and the more able and usually they are tyrants. So basically I don't see justice happening to the crushed and the weak."

Did he think that a few years ago?

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Image caption Youssef decided to leave Egypt last year for his own safety

"No, no... you think it now when you are in an atmosphere that makes you look at things much more differently. So yeah I think it's a totally unfair world to live in."

"We have passed through four very tough years, it was a rollercoaster, like a rollercoaster of emotions, of feelings, of political change, and it affected everybody.

"You can't really simplify it to being an optimist or a pessimist. It's more like we were totally into it... That said, there were days that were better than others."

I venture that for many in the West he was the face of a new liberal Egypt.

"Oh that is a nice compliment - the face of liberal Egypt! Do we have a liberal Egypt? If we do have I would be very happy to be the face of it. Thank you for the compliment - where do I get my prize? Thanks to the academy," he chuckles again.

This is not to paint a picture of someone morose - he isn't. At one point during a car journey, as we discuss the dangers of being a satirist, he spots something out of the window and screeches:

"Oh my God, little lambs! They're so cute. My daughter would be jumping out of the car."

Later as we leave the BBC he is delighted to spot Welsh Guards outside. A diplomatic incident is narrowly avoided as he is talked out of impromptu photo bomb of the soldiers.

Making people think

He is now a visiting fellow at Harvard, with lectures that are essentially a remake of his chat show. "I'm basically telling the story of the revolution through the eyes of a satirist."

He is also co-writing a Hollywood film called a Comedy of Arabs, a nod to Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors - "Let's just say it's a terrorist trying to be a stand-up comedian."

Ultimately it seems he will be forever tied to Egypt's revolution, the one that made him, and ultimately seems to have failed him.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Youssef has not ruled out a return to TV, but says the time is not right

After a revolution that changed his country and his life, he still seems to be finding his way in a new world.

"I get very confused about being called a comedian, because when you say 'I'm a comedian' people expect you to crack a joke. Maybe I use laughter and humour to make people think."

"I don't know what you call that - a humourist? A satirist? A pessimistic comedian? I don't know. Satirists can be very dark."

He deadpans: "The dark satirist, like the Dark Knight, that could be a good name for a superhero."

"That could be your title, "Bassem Youssef, the Dark Satirist", and then you could say 'I didn't find him funny at all, I don't know why his fans like him'," he chuckles.

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