Jon Stewart has taken some time off of his Daily Show schedule in order to work on a different project, but that hasn’t kept him off of television altogether — at least, not in Egypt. Stewart paid a visit to the Egyptian homage to his own show in an act of solidarity after the government charged Bassam Youssef with crimes related to his satirical criticisms of Mohamed Morsi. Youssef, who has also appeared on Stewart’s show, welcomed his long-distance mentor to the stage in an unusual manner:
The Daily Show host Jon Stewart made an appearance on Egypt’s most-watched satirical show Friday night, insulting the Egyptian government and praising the show’s host Bassem Youssef, who was released on bail earlier this year after being arrested. …
Many Egyptians admire Youssef, who made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people this year and has appeared twice on The Daily Show, which is filmed in New York.
Now, Stewart was visiting Cairo, ushered into Youssef’s studio with a black bag over his head to jokingly show he was captured as a foreign spy before he was introduced to the audience.
“Shukran!” Stewart said to the cheering crowd, meaning “thank you” in Arabic, before attempting to speak a few other words in the language.
“Your president has bestowed upon me an appointment — I am now the mayor of Luxor,” Stewart said, mocking Morsi’s recent decision to appoint a member of Gemaa Islamiya, which is a United States-designated terrorist group, as governor of the strategic tourist city.
No doubt this took considerable courage on the part of both men. However, Stewart himself seemed to undermine that with this comment:
“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime,” Stewart said onEl Bernameg, or The Program. “You have to be able to handle anything.”
Stewart also said that “a joke never rode a motorcycle into a crowd” as a way to dismiss the significance of shows like El Bernameg. This is disingenuous in the same way that many find the clown-nose-on-off routine from Stewart and Colbert so annoying — although in this particular case, with the acute danger Youssef faces, it’s a lot more excusable. Satire can be a tremendously powerful weapon in politics, especially to puncture the sanctimony and self-righteousness of autocrats. That has a tradition that goes back millenia, which is why rulers like Morsi seek to silence people like Youssef. The jokes themselves may not drive motorcycles into crowds, but they empower people to challenge authority and ride motorcycles themselves to stand up to tyrants when needed.
Those who stage political satire are always participants in the political system. Putting on the clown nose doesn’t fool anyone, especially not those threatened by it. Youssef is on the front line, generating laughter and ridicule against authoritarians who cannot survive either for very long. Perhaps in the US that may not seem like a big deal, but in Egypt, this may become a deadly business for Youssef. Kudos to Stewart for showing his support of Youssef, but don’t take his underestimation of Youssef’s work for anything other than the political cover Stewart intended.