Egyptian heart surgeon-turned-satirist Bassem Youssef left Egypt in 2014 after his megahit show El Bernameg (“The Program”) on which he snarked at top pols of all stripes became too dangerous to produce under the country’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart and named one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People by Time magazine in 2013, Youssef recently hosted the 43rd International Emmy Awards in New York. He spoke with Variety at the Dubai Film Festival about his ambitions for the Muslim and Arab subculture to play a greater role in Hollywood and what he’s been up to since leaving his country.
Shortly after leaving Egypt you became a resident fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. How was that experience?
I was at Harvard to lead study groups and teaching a course about satire, political humour, and how it affects political and social relations — and sexual relations of course — in the Arab world, and in the world at large. I went there since I had nothing else to do, and also it was a great honor.
After being forced by lawsuits and arrests to pull the plug on “The Program” in Egypt, you had been offered to do it out of Dubai. Why didn’t you?
I decided I would not do “The Program” from outside Egypt despite many very lucrative offers. I said: “This show belongs to Egypt, to an Egyptian team, to an Egyptian audience in the heart of Cairo. And I’m not going to be a dissident, a fugitive who is going to be doing the show from outside the country.” I think if I’m not there, it sends a much clearer message about how things are.
So where are you living these days?
I am living between Dubai and the United States, and I’m going to move to the U.S. very soon. Maybe I’m going to do a digital show with Fusion. We are trying it as a little experiment. We want to speak about democracy from a Middle Eastern perspective inside America. It’s going to be funny and very informative.
Have you been back to Egypt at all?
I haven’t been back to Egypt in 13 months.
If Donald Trump where to become president, would you continue to live in the U.S.?
Yes, as a matter of fact, because I know a lot of Americans will be leaving and that will create a lot more vacancies. Come on! Do you think that Trump would alienate me? Trump is a freakin’ bigot, and he’s a racist and he’s stupid. Where I come from, the Middle East, that’s like everyday business, baby! Do you think I’m going to be, like alienated, by this? At least they have better highways in the States.
Who is your U.S. agent and what are you looking to do in Hollywood?
I’m still finding one. What I hope to do in the States is to break up this stereotyping of Muslims and Arabs. I mean, we are basically the only sub-culture that is not represented in Hollywood. And it’s funny because everybody is talking about the Muslim world and the Arab world, and we are not represented. It happened with everybody: with the Jews, with the African-Americans, with the Hispanics. There was a time when these people were excluded. But they made it. And now they have changed the perspective. Now you can have a very lucrative African-American movie — in fact, they are a genre. Or movies that talk about Hispanics, or even movies that talk about Chinese and Indians. They are everywhere. The only sub-culture that’s not there are the Arab Muslims, and there are some amazing talents.
Got any movie projects?
There is a movie I’m trying to do in the United States called “The Comedy of Arabs.” It’s written by two Jewish people and two Muslims, and we have not killed each other yet…(laughs) Give us time. I think if this movie is done well, if we find a good director, we could do for our community what Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy did for the African-American community. We need to tell people: “You know what? It’s not like (we are) either ISIS or people who don’t want to blow themselves up. We are so many different varieties other than taxi drivers and suicide bombers. Who would have thought that a South African (Trevor Noah) would replace Jon Stewart? Who would have thought that a British person (John Oliver) would have one of the most-watched political satire shows (in the U.S.)? The prime slot on Comedy Central is owned by people of color. I hosted the International Emmys, and I think I did a good job. I think there is space for us and this is the way you deal with radicalism. Part of the reason why people get radicalized is because they feel they are disenfranchised; that they not there; that they are bullied. But if they are represented, they can’t go and say to themselves: “Oh, this society hates us!”
Just like Trump?
This why Donald Trump is the best gift ISIS ever had, because he plays right into their insanity. Do you know what ISIS and the likes of ISIS like to tell people: “The West hates you!” And every time this kind of hate speech comes out, it plays right into the hands of ISIS.