By Mohamed Mifdal – El Jadida
Throughout human history, satirists have contributed meaningfully to the moral and political discourse and hence to the practice of “citizenship”. Most critics agree on the problematic relationship of satire to power, but they tend to disagree on the power of satire to seriously subvert the dominant political order or change the historical reality in an effective way.
The controversial reception of the TV satirical show “Albarnamag” of the Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, aired on CBC, has brought to light the new state of satire in the Arab World, especially in Egypt, since the 2011 uprising. Paradoxically, politicians are more suspicious of satirists and set more boundaries to their satire.
After Morsi had been elected president of Egypt, Bassem used satire to criticize him during his one-year term in office and was sued by Morsi’s supporters for insulting the president and Islam. After a brief detention, Bassem was freed and his satirical show rose to global prominence. The number of Youssef’s followers on Twitter exceeded the number of President Mohammed Morsi’s followers. Analysts claim that Bassem’s satirical show largely contributed to the deterioration of the political image of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rapid fall of Morsi.
This claim seems vulnerable to several objections. First, the opposition to Morsi’s rule was strong enough to undermine his political endeavors. Second, the economic situation was rapidly deteriorating, leading to a decrease in popularity for the president even among those who had voted for him. Third, the president’s political mistakes were just fatal.
As a liberal, Bassem gave voice to the rejection of Morsi’s rule by a large number of political parties, minorities and disappointed people. The growing critical acclaim that his satirical show received was in fact the expression of the vested interests of the anti-islamist political elite and the Christian minority. It can be argued that Bassem is a liberal secularist who is strongly opposed to the Islamic fundamentalism and that his satire of Morsi can be apprehended, framed and even justified in terms of this political stance. However, without the support of the political elite, Bassem’s satire would have had little or no immediate effect.
The argument I am trying to make is that Bassem had taken advantage of the strong opposition of Morsi’s rule to mount an attack of what seemed then an easy safe target. At the same time he has been used by the political elite to disparage the controversial president and undermine his policies. Bassem had been off air since Morsi’s overthrow in July and his return to the airwaves last Friday night (October 25, 2013) was a real litmus test both for his satire and for the free expression in the post-Morsi era.
Was Bassem’s satire the symbol of a more tolerant democratic society willing to make fun of its foibles? Was Morsi just too thin-skinned to tolerate even playful criticism? Would the new rulers of Egypt tolerate his satire? Would Bessem dare criticize the military and its leaders?
A lot of questions were opened during his four-month hiatus and the expectations changed in terms of political affiliations and interests. Bassem targeted the islamists, the military and the zealous supporters of army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in the name of democracy and civil liberties.
“What we fear is that fascism in the name of religion will be replaced by fascism in the name of patriotism and national security,” Youssef said. His mock news show was followed by hours of verbal jousting on social media over its content and supporters of both Morsi and El-ssissi expressed displeasure.
The CBC channel broadcast a statement on behalf of the channel’s board to distance itself from Bassem’s political stance and criticism of the military and its leaders.
“CBC will continue to be supportive of the basics of national sentiment and popular will and is keen on not using phrases and innuendos that may lead to mocking national sentiment or symbols of the Egyptian state,” CBC broadcaster said. Four complaints were filed with the top prosecutor the next day, accusing Bassem of defaming the armed forces and belittling their efforts to fight terrorism.
Bassem was aware that he would be prosecuted by his new critics in an article he published before his return to CBC and described them as “those who love freedom dearly when it works for them”. Now that the satirist is rejected by so many critics, a reassessment of the state of satire in Egypt is required. Will Bassem continue to challenge the new rulers of Egypt? Will an investigation be launched against him? Will his satire have the same effect it had in the Morsi’s era? Will satire thrive in the presence of risks? Will Bassem stand firm against repression?
Political constraints have never been able to stop satirists from challenging authority. Drawing on Mathew Hodgart’s suggestion that “no matter how totalitarian the regime, a miniscule degree of freedom will always remain sufficient for the production and dissemination of satire”. Brian A Connery argues that “political and/or cultural repression and oppression are often a stimulus to satire” (Hodgart, 5). Satire thrives, then, in the face of repression and in the presence of risks. However, in a context of political reprisal, satirists look for protectors and patrons and tend to attack safe targets and eschew frontal opposition to strong power-holders.
Satire is bound to overstep the established boundaries in any society, what changes, in effect, is whether the boundaries challenged are protected (as is the case in Egypt) or relatively weakened (in liberal free societies). A case in point is the French satirical latex puppet show (les Guignols de l’info), broadcast on Canal + which challenges popular figures but remains largely tolerated even by targeted politicians, as compared to another similar show (les Guignols du Maghreb), broadcast on Nessma TV, which attacks so far only safe targets, sparing kings and presidents. Strong power-holders are protected by sacred boundaries (called the red lines) and it is proscribed to target them.
It is within this context that Bassem’s satire will have to function if it is to achieve any immediate effects. Without patrons or supporters, Bassem will run the risk of being rejected and even prosecuted. Without the respect of cultural and religious boundaries, his satire is bound to trigger protests and even riots. Nevertheless, Bassem may choose to make his satire a form of resistance to systems of oppression and assume his fate as a liberal subversive satirist in a repressive state.
Mohamed Mifdal is Assistant Professor and Chouaib Doukkali University in El Jadida, Morocco
– HODGART Matthew, Satire : Origins and Principles, (Originally published in 1969) New Brunswick, New Jersey, Transaction Publishers, 2010.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy
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