John Oliver sat down recently for an NPR interview, where he talked about his show on HBO, Last Week Tonight, as well as about Bassem Youssef, considered Egypt’s “Jon Stewart”, mock political news anchor and host of the now-defunct El Barnameg. A British-born comedian, John Oliver worked with Jon Stewart as a correspondent on Stewart’s acclaimed Daily Show for over seven years before being solicited by HBO for a weekly production of his own.
Oliver spoke about the recent cancellation of Youssef’s celebrated program, El Barnameg, an Egyptian faux-news program. Stewart, Oliver and Stephen Colbert (of the Colbert Report) were colleagues of the mock news anchor, and both Oliver and Stewart have spoken out on Youssef’s show being cancelled. Colbert has released a news update on his website announcing that the show is off the air, although no further statement is made on behalf of Colbert directly.
Bassem Youssef, the popular satirist dubbed the Jon Stewart of Egypt by the press, made a statement to the media confirming that his show El Barnameg was off the air on June 2. After a hiatus imposed by the show’s network in May, Youssef was scheduled to resume broadcasting after the election May 30. The program, however, has since failed to return.
Youssef’s production, in the style of American political satirist and mock news anchor Jon Stewart, chided Islamic President Morsi (recently deposed via a military coup, and replacement of impeached 30-year leader Hosni Mubarak). The Egyptian program was wildly popular, even before Youssef received backing from a network.
El Barnameg, which translates to “The Program” in English, began when the then-37 year-old cardiac surgeon started creating YouTube videos in the wake of political turmoil and protests in Cairo. The entertainer reports that popular American broadcasts such as The Colbert Report and Jon Stewart’s Daily Show served as inspiration for his presentations. Youssef claims that he aspired to a television network even in his earliest YouTube screenings. While Youssef was expecting a few hundred hits in the first weeks after his inaugural post on March 8, 2011, he was shocked to have received a million views in under a month’s time.
The comedic styling of Youssef attracted more than just viral video hits. El Barnameg (originally entitled The B-Show, after Youseff’s own blood type) was picked up by Middle Eastern television channel ONTV in 2011. For Barbameg’s second season, major network CBC picked up the program in late 2012. The humorist was at this point being billed as an Egyptian Jon Stewart, and his program received record ratings both when it aired on television and through viral media channels.
The premiere of the third season came after a break of four months, and the show’s inaugural broadcast after the interval was the first since 2013’s protests ejected President Mohamed Morsi from office. Youssef’s controversial humor and political stances proved to be too contentious for Egyptian network CBC, who cancelled the show’s broadcast very shortly after it began. Youssef was able to secure a contract with the Saudi-owned MBC MASR in February 2014, but the show was suspended until the conclusion of the Presidential elections in Egypt, reportedly so as not to influence voters.
In a country under military rule since Morsi’s overthrow in July 2013, with hundreds killed and thousands jailed, the election of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during this 2014 election brought more pressure than ever from networks to put a stop to Yousef’s humorous digs about censorship, deception, unemployment and economic instability, all of which undermined the state of Egypt. This June, pressure placed on Saudi broadcaster MBC MSAR saw El Barnameg off the air for good.
John Oliver talked about Egypt’s John Stewart to NPR. In response to Youssef’s program, Oliver spoke highly of the host’s tenacity. When someone like Youssef is being restricted from engaging in something he loves, Oliver stated in a recent interview, it makes a person appreciate being able to do that same thing all the more. Oliver went on to say that Youssef’s political comedy was particularly brave because of the way that this entertainer was intimidated off the air. Oliver said he felt he owed Youssef in a way for the anchor’s convictions against censorship.
In addition to stellar ratings and international acclaim, Youssef’s influential broadcast earned him a spot on Time Magazine‘s prestigious list of 100 Most Influential Men in the World in 2013. It is a shock, then, that Egypt’s Jon Stewart should be taken off the air at the height of his acclaim. The crew fought against cancellations and infringements vigorously, but in the end, Youssef halted El Barnameg for his own personal safety.
Youssef said in a press release regarding the show’s termination that he and his producers had taken El Barnameg “as far as we can”, but that the present political climate in Egypt was inopportune for a news satire program. At a June 2 press conference in Cairo, the performer cited emotional strain, the struggle to find a network to call home, and concerns about the welfare of his family and friends as major impediments to continuing with the popular show.
El Barnameg being taken off of the air signals more than just the end of the Arab world’s Jon Stewart. International advocacy organizations fear the program’s cancellation also speaks to an ongoing violation of civil rights in the Middle East. Canceling Youssef’s program, many human rights groups fear, signals a victory for Egypt’s sensory government, ending the free speech of one entertainer whose only weapon in the fight for democracy was his humorous observations.
By Mariah Beckman