Top Arab satcaster MBC on Tuesday vowed that Egyptian TV comic Bassem Youssef will be back on the air in Egypt “soon,” though not necessarily with his political satire show “Al-Bernameg” (The Program) which has been pulled amid mounting pressure in a clear sign of a crackdown on satire in Egypt.
Youssef, known as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world, called it quits in Cairo on Monday, in the aftermath of the landslide election won last week by former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, now the country’s president, whom Youssef had mocked on the show, also urging him not to run.
On Tuesday MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek said the “contractual and professional” relationship between MBC and Bassem Youssef and his team remains in place with two or three specific projects. “We promise the audience that we will come back with Bassem and the Al-Bernameg team soon,” Hayek said.
“Whether it’s ‘Al-Bernameg,’ a different version, or something totally different. What shape or form, on what channel, it’s too early to tell,” he added.
As for what prompted the landmark show’s cancellation, Hayek said “we (MBC and Youssef) reached a stage of unsurmountable pressure from all sides on practically everyone involved in the production. However, as MBC we don’t blame any specific party for stopping ‘Al-Bernameg’.”
The MBC spokesman also denied media speculation that the Saudi-owned broadcaster may have bowed to pressure from the Saudi government, which has been among el-Sissi’s backers.
“I can go further by telling you Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with that decision,” Hayek said. “MBC Group is a privately owned company. We don’t fall under any official mandate from any government, including Saudi Arabia. The origin of the pressures were not Saudi.”
There is no evidence of Egypt’s newly elected president having a direct role in pushing Youssef off the air. Still, during the presidential campaign el-Sissi said he would not tolerate “offensive” criticism and would enforce an existing law against insulting the president.
The MBC spokesman said that ever since “Al-Bernameg” went back on air on MBC – after being cancelled by Egyptian broadcaster CBC under Islamist president Mohammad Morsi, also satirised by Youssef – MBC Egypt had never interfered with its content.
“We were receiving the episodes ready to air a couple of hours before the airing time,” Hayek said.
“Bassem and his team where the only people responsible for the content of ‘Al Bernameg,’ with our support because we carried whatever content they sent us to the screen.”
“We were broadcasting ‘Al-Bernameg’ in the face of all kinds of rumours, lawsuits, pressures, demonstrations near the studios where the show was shot, and jamming. We continued in spite of it all. But then it reached a stage where it couldn’t continue.”
Youssef, a former heart surgeon, gained popularity after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, first on YouTube and then on Egyptian TV channels ONTV and CBC where his ratings soared as he snarked at president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood whose supporters took legal action. After Morsi was ousted in a military coup, his jokes and stinging skits became directed towards the country’s new military-backed powers against which there now seems to be even less leeway.