In Egypt, How Free Is Free?

Egypt is experiencing a suite of problems at the moment. Economic hardship, political discourse and constant violence rattle the day-to-day lives of its citizens, even though the revolution supposedly ended two years ago. Freedom of speech and of the press has been one of these hot-button issues, with activists and journalists brought in for questioning on the grounds of defamation. On March 31st, popular comedian Bassem Youssef joined the ranks of the summoned for commentary on his TV show “El Bernameg” (“The Show”) similar in format to the United States’ “The Daily Show.” Youssef had taken on the government, and it started to feel uneasy about his jabs.

The next day, John Stewart, who interviewed Youssef several times, dedicated 11 minutes of his program unpacking the meaning of this media personality’s arrest with his charismatic sarcasm:


He ended the segment with a clip of President Morsi asserting his commitment to freedom of speech and the press, along with a direct plea for Morsi to reconsider the actions taken again Youssef (and democracy in general. “…the world is watching. No one wants to see Egypt plunge into darkness. A democracy isn’t a democracy if it only lasts until someone makes fun of your hat.”

After the show, the US Embassy in Cairo tweeted the segment to its followers much to the chagrin of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling party. But activists commended the Embassy for their bold stance.

Unfortunately, some things were not to be.

The MB quickly countered, condemning the move.

Promptly, not only the offending tweet, but the entire @USEmbassyCairo account was taken down. Allegedly this was done without White House approval and soon after, the account was re-instated–minus the original tweet.


The next day, the MB continued a barrage of attacks on US policy and relations with the US, both on Twitter and their website.

“The FJP strongly and totally condemns these statements as made by the US State Department’s spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, because they will have only one interpretation in the Egyptian street: the US welcomes and defends contempt of religion by the media. At the same time, the FJP reiterates and reaffirms its deep respect for freedom of opinion and freedom to criticize executive leaders, including the head of state, within the bounds of the law and the Constitution, with respect for religious and cultural constants of this free revolutionary and independent people.” – excerpt from statement on the MB website


Morsi also released a statement (in English) regarding the incident. The President claimed that the accusations brought against Youssef were from a private citizen, and not the government.

“Egyptian Presidency Press Release on the Questioning of the Comedian The Presidency reaffirms that Egypt after the revolution has become a state of law with independent Judiciary. Hence, the Prosecution’s summoning of any Egyptian citizen regardless of his title or fame is the decision of the Prosecutor General, who operates independently from the presidency. The current legal system allows for individual complaints to be brought to the Prosecutor General. All the current well-publicized claims were initiated by citizens rather than the Presidency. The Presidency has not filed any complaint against stand-up comedian Basem Yousef. The Presidency reiterates the importance of freedom of expression and fully respects press freedom. All citizens are free to express themselves without the restrictions that prevailed in the era of the previous regime. The first legislation passed under President Mohamed Morsy was concerned with the prevention of pre-trial detention of journalists. This demonstrates the determination of the President to encourage press and media to operate in a free environment. We urge citizens to exercise their legal right to freedom of speech while respecting the rule of law.” People questioned it’s motive, considering it was written for a western audience.

The Twitter-verse was aflame with support for Youssef and his message.


However, one blogger for the Huffington Post spoke out against Youssef:

“Egypt stands at a critical juncture, and Bassem Youssef is taking advantage rather than playing a helping role. It only takes one deranged person to ruin the reputation of an entire nation. Bassem Youssef has entertained so many people and in the process has mocked all things that make Egypt the place loved by so many people. Bassem Youssef is milking his five minutes of fame, and his friends are talking about him as if he is some modern-day Martin Luther King Jr. MLK did not have a million-dollar contract. MLK did not insult people for money. MLK did not try to embarrass his foes. Let’s stop pretending Youssef is fighting the good fight. He is just fighting for a paycheck.” 

The post became its own center for debate, even being challenged by a fellow HuffPo blogger.


And the Muslim Brotherhood part was quick to defend Morsi’s motives:

Oddly enough, Youssef himself encouraged a redirection of this energy, claiming that others were more deserving and in more need of the attention.

The conversation was so popular, #BassemYoussef, #Cairo and #Egypt all became trending topics on Twitter. Later in the week, after Youssef’s showed aired, #BassemYoussef would again rise to the same level of attention.

But as is the achilles heel of social media, a vocal minority was acting as spokesperson for a nation when in fact, there was more to tell. One Eqyptian blogger set out to find the whole story. By combing the streets, she was able to determine a more even-handed and in-depth account of the debate. Here are some quotes from the “everyman” Egyptians she talked with:

‘ “Opinions should be expressed in a way acceptable to God. I shouldn’t knock people or use bad language.”

“I used to watch Bassem Youssef during the revolution and I used to love him. But I don’t like the opposition’s style now. I’m not with Morsi but I don’t like the opposition.”

“He is constantly attacking Islamists. Before he used to attack everyone but now he is constantly attacking Islamists”.

Note that all of these people watch B.Youssef’s show regularly and enjoy it, even one man who agreed that the satirist should be taken to task for crossing the line. ‘

On Friday night, Youssef’s show aired as scheduled, and the media personality was unphased by his recent arrest. In the show, he took on Qatar with a parody that would go viral later that night.


In general, activists were elated to see the comedian continue to “fight the good fight” against the oppression they felt against the regime.

The next day, Youssef was officially acquitted of charges and the investigation was dropped.

That wasn’t the end of the story, though.

“The small but inordinately wealthy emirate of Qatar issued a statement on Monday, condemning Youssef’s mockery of their “generours aid” and warning the economically dire Egyptian state that relations would cool over the coming months. “He added that satire was permissible when used to discuss relevant political issues, saying that he in fact agreed with much of what Bassem Youssef presents on his programme, adding, however, that restraint should be exercised when discussing issues of economic importance, as this was in the best interests of the country. ”

And this sentiment wasn’t limited to the government or the Business Council. Several citizens of the island also spoke out on Twitter, offended by the comedian’s commentary.


For a land as impoverished and desperate as Egypt, the push and pull of old-world and new-world values could prove fatal to many of its citizens in this ongoing struggle for democracy.

1 thought on “In Egypt, How Free Is Free?

  1. Nice summary of the back and forth social media battles here. Documenting the conversations, especially with deleted tweets and many speakers, seems like a much bigger challenge than just curating tweets from a given hashtag or real-world event. Do you think there’s a need for a place to share screenshots and other evidence of later-deleted social media posts? Like a Politiwhoops for the rest of the world?

Comments are closed.