The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Is the "Egyptian Jon Stewart" Whistling in the Dark?

As Egypt’s Islamists surge and its currency sinks, a Jon Stewart-like TV comedian is mixing it up with many of the country’s religious sheiks:

As a new Constitution engraves Islam ever more firmly into Egyptian law, a young comic’s escalating battle with a group of ultraconservative television sheiks has become an early skirmish over the application of Islamic law, or Shariah.

In the weeks leading up to the referendum over the Islamist-backed charter, sheiks hosting Islamist variations on “The 700 Club” have spent weeks attacking the protesters who clogged Cairo’s streets, calling them perverts, drug users, paid thugs and Christians. When a 38-year-old television comedian, Bassem Youssef, began mocking the sheiks for their outlandish allegations, they turned on him, too, accusing him of sexual immorality and even poor hygiene.

Despite these attacks, Youssef continues to enjoy a large following:

Mr. Youssef…has used parody to argue that the ultraconservatives, known as Salafis, are distorting Islam, and for the moment, his satire appears to have trumped their sanctimony. Mr. Youssef is winning not only the laughs of young audiences but also the endorsements of respected Muslim scholars. He even won a grudging apology from one of his critics.

[...]

No one pretends that a late-night comedy show can erase the popular support of the Salafis or the more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, another target of Mr. Youssef’s humor. But during his war of words with the sheiks, young men at street cafes in poor neighborhoods far from Cairo could be seen watching his show and shaking with laughter.

Liberals in Egypt seem increasingly like the leftists in Tom Lehrer’s “Folk Song Army,” who sing: “Remember the war against Franco?/ That’s the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles/We had all the good songs.” Although Islamists are consolidating their hold over institution after institution across the country, liberals are better at making snarky remarks on TV.

We wish the Egyptian liberals and Mr. Youssef all the best in their attempt to laugh the Islamists out of power, and we hope that the liberals’ new champion isn’t just whistling in the dark. But instead of making themselves feel smart and superior by laughing at poorly educated religious leaders and the peasants who follow them, liberals in Egypt should be thinking about how to reach the rural masses with political ideas that inspire them and proposals that address their real problems better than the Islamists can do.

Until that happens, the comedians will continue to snark until the Islamists decide that the time has come to turn out the lights. The nightclub comedians in the Weimar Republic were much smarter and funnier than the Nazi thugs. Young Germans in cafes in poor neighborhoods used to laugh at their jokes as well. It didn’t do them much good in the end.

Published on January 1, 2013 2:18 pm