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 on a trip to 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 sparked 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.
“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.”