CAIRO -- Amid growing tension at the approach of the June 30 anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s assumption of Egypt’s presidency, Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” appeared on Egyptian TV Friday night, drawing laughs in a funny yet very serious tribute to the importance of satire in a free state.
Stewart was the guest of Bassem Youssef on Youssef’s weekly television show, “Al Barhnameg,” or “The Program,” one of Egypt’s most popular and most controversial shows. Especially since March, when Morsi’s government charged Youssef with insulting the president and Islam for, among other things, wearing a hat that mocked the one Morsi wore to a trip Pakistan.
Youssef was released on $2,200 bail, and Stewart has stood by him ever since, once devoting 10 minutes of his own show to Youssef’s case.
On Friday, Youssef introduced Stewart by saying that he had brought in one of the many feared spies of the regime. Stewart, wearing a black mask and led by two men in suits, walked in. As he lifted the mask, the crowd cheered.
Stewart deployed the little Arabic he memorized as he appeared on stage with Youssef, whose show is a weekly news roundup that looks like and is styled after “The Daily Show.”
“Shukran” – thank you in Arabic, Stewart said to cheers – and “khalas,” enough, as the studio fans gave him a standing ovation. “Oudou,” sit, Stewart told them, and “Ani regal basset,” or I am a simple man, followed by “Membaasaa al riftya” – I don’t want to be carried.
But he was no match for Youssef, who turned to the crowd and said in Arabic, “They call him the Bassem Youssef of America, and he imitates me.”
He translated what he said to Stewart as: “I just said you are an inspiration to me.”
Stewart’s support of Youssef has sparkled controversy before. When Stewart told his American viewers in March that Youssef’s arrest went against the spirit of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted the segment – earning outrage from Morsi’s government and supporters.
Stewart came to Cairo to reiterate the same message as he commented on the city’s notorious traffic problems (“Have you thought about traffic lights?”) and hospitality (“I am filled up to here with apricots and dates”).
“If your regime is not strong enough to handle jokes, then you have no regime. . . . Yes, maybe (a joke) is an insult, but it is not an injury,” Stewart said. Youssef “is showing satire can still be relevant. . . . It is just the opportunity to be heard.”
But the serious pleas for freedom of expression were interspersed with humor. At one point, Youssef pulled out several dishes of traditional Egyptian food for Stewart to try. As Stewart picked up a piece of round flatbread, he turned to Youssef and asked: “Is this a yamaka?”
Youssef dedicated the hour leading up to Stewart’s 20-minute appearance to the increasingly hostile language between Morsi supporters and opponents as the June 30 anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, when massive protests are expected, nears.
The Morsi government has sought to shore up support in recent days, making promises of aid to the Sinai, appointing governors who appeal to both moderate and jihadist Islamists, and gathering crowds of supporters, including Friday, when hundreds of thousands of Morsi supporters gathered and sang Morsi’s praises. Some speakers called for a peaceful demonstration; others suggested that it was their Islamic duty to defend Morsi.
But polls show Morsi’s popularity has fallen every month in office. A Zogby Research Services poll of 5,000 Egyptians, conducted over the weeks leading up to May 12 and released Monday, found that only 28 percent saw Morsi’s election as positive. That was down from 57 percent just after his inauguration. Other polls had his popularity as high as 74 percent a year ago.
Earlier this week, Morsi filled a Cairo stadium with thousands of supporters in a speech about Syria, announcing that Egypt would close its embassy in Damascus. Youssef called the crowd “the other planet.”
Throughout his show, Youssef mocked the expectations of what would come of the planned June 30 protests.
“What’s going to happen on the 30th of June?” he asked, before showing one talking head predicting “liberation and end of occupation” while another said: “The red carpet will be rolled out for Morsi.”
“Do you think Morsi is going to leave with the red card,” like an expelled soccer player? Youssef asked.
“If the president falls, Egypt will fall with it. There won’t be peace. There won’t be stability,” played the video from a commenter for a Salafist channel on a recent news program.
“That means we will stay as we are?” Youssef replied.
The 90-minute show tapes on Wednesday and airs Friday nights. Millions tune in, especially among liberals and Morsi opponents. Often cafes tune all the televisions to the program, and this Friday was no different, with a crowd at one laughing at Stewart’s observations about life in Egypt, cheering when he said how touched he was by Egyptian hospitality, and sitting silent as he spoke about the importance of satire, perhaps unsure of how they were expected to respond in what is supposed to be a democratic Egypt.