The Program on Arab Reform and Democracy (ARD) at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) is pleased to welcome international media figure and Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef as a visiting scholar during the Fall of 2016. Dubbed the Jon Stewart of the Arab World, Youssef was the host of the popular TV political satire show Al-Bernameg, which was the first of its kind in the Middle East region. Al-Bernameg was the most watched show in the history of Egyptian TV with an average of 40 million viewers every week. Due to its sharp criticism of Egyptian leaders, Al-Bernameg faced political pressure from successive governments until it was finally taken off the air in the summer of 2014. Recently, Youssef launched “The Democracy Handbook,” a Fusion TV digital series that satirizes American politics through a Middle Eastern perspective. Named one of TIME’s “100 most influential people in the world” in 2013, Youssef served as a resident fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 2015.
Youssef’s fellowship is supported by a generous grant from the Carnegie Corporation, and by the Stanford Arts Office of the Associate Dean. In the following interview Youssef discusses his current projects and their relevance to the Stanford community.
Bassem Youssef in conversation with ARD Associate-Director Hesham Sallam and CDDRL Visiting Scholar Alexandra Pichler Fong at the CDDRL fall 2016 reception, September 29, 2016 (Photo credit: Djurdja Jovanovic Padejski)
What are your research goals and priorities at CDDRL, Stanford?
I am not a stranger to CDDRL. About a year ago I spoke at the Center in conversation with Professor Larry Diamond in what might have been one of the best interviews I had on a college campus in the United States. During my visit, I was very impressed with CDDRL’s efforts to try to make sense of all what is happening in the Middle East and to nuance American perspectives on the situation the region. I was elated when I was informed that there was a chance for me to join forces with this prestigious center.
Through my fellowship at CDDRL, I would like to bring a different voice to the discussion over what is happening in the Middle East and the Muslim World, and how narratives in the United States can affect the realities in the region. Beyond my own research on satire and social change, my priority is to connect with the student community at Stanford and encourage them to find their own voices and their own opinions about that part of the world. I believe that satire can be a great tool to understand and even change how people view the world around them. As much I have a lot to share with students, I am sure I will have a great deal to learn from them too, and from the Stanford community more generally. I had the privilege to meet with some of the smartest young people here and I look forward to benefit from this intellectually promising experience.
How are the ongoing political developments in the United States informing your current projects?
After I moved to the United States, I started to follow the American elections very closely. With the rise of a populist Right not just in the States but also in Europe, I could see many similarities of how masses are being controlled through hate, xenophobia, and fear. These have been key elements in the narratives used by many Middle Eastern regimes for decades. As people were horrified with the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, this came to me as a reminder that no nation, no matter how strong or advanced, is free of such forms of public manipulation and fear-mongering. This was a great starting point for me here in the States. I discovered many similarities that I can comment on and use to show people that we are not that different from each other and that intolerance and bigotry have no single home or language. I was fortunate to relay that message in my new show in America "Democracy Handbook" and also in my coverage of the National Conventions of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
What is your assessment of the prospects for meaningful political change at the current moment in Egypt?
The current realities in Egypt and the Middle East are a product of decades of authoritarian rule. What happened in the Arab Spring interrupted the rule of particular autocrats, but did not succeed in delivering the type of lasting social change we all had hoped for. The biggest obstacle to meaningful social change in Egypt remains the massive webs of special interests that have ruled the country for the last 60 years and shaped its political and social hierarchies. It was naive of us to think that 18 days of protests could make profound changes to the system. You can get rid of the autocrat at the helm, but the system can still endure, as evidenced by the current realities. Any changes will be worthless in the absence of complete transparency and accountability of the ruling class that controls the country’s economy, governance, and legislation.