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Meet the "Jon Stewart of Egypt": Bassem Youssef

The Egyptian TV host has been labeled a traitor for his satire, but Bassem says that won't stop him from poking fun at the powerful
Meet the "Jon Stewart of Egypt": Bassem Youssef 14:03

The following script is from "Bassem Youssef" which aired on March 16, 2014. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Michael Gavshon and David Levine, producers.

One of the most popular television shows in the Middle East is hosted by an Egyptian satirist named Bassem Youssef. He never thought he'd be a comedian, he was a respected heart surgeon. But today, he's called the Jon Stewart of Egypt. Unlike Stewart, though, he has been interrogated by the authorities. He's been labeled an infidel and a traitor.

The real Jon Stewart on "the Jon Stewart of Egypt" 05:48
His weekly show was yanked off the air last October and, though he is back on now, he doesn't know for how long or how seriously he should take the death threats he receives with some regularity. Youssef does political satire on TV, and nobody's seen anything like it -- not in Egypt, not in the rest of the Arab world.

We traveled to Cairo last month to watch Youssef as he was preparing his first show on a new network. He knows it could be cancelled any day, not because of poor ratings, but because people in power so often feel threatened by laughter.

He has such a fervent following that all he has to do is say, "Welcome to the program" for his audience to crack up.

[Bassef Youssef: Welcome to the program, "The Program!"]

It's the kind of show with which Americans are very familiar.

["The name of the game, what's up!"]

Every week, an estimated 30 million people tune in. Egyptians have never seen anything like this before. And Bassem knows he's never quite beyond the reach of the authorities. "We won't listen to anybody who intimidates us," he says. "We want freedom, freedom!"

All eyes on Bassem 00:54
Bassem saved his best material for former President Mohammed Morsi. Look at what Morsi wore when he received an honorary doctorate in Pakistan. Now look at how Bassem portrayed it on the air. Bassem was accused of damaging Egypt/Pakistan relations.

Bob Simon: You made him look like a clown.

Bassem Youssef: I never-- I never meant to actually make him look like a clown--

Bob Simon: Oh come on. You wore a hat--

Bassem Youssef: Yeah--

Bob Simon: --that made him look like a clown--

Bassem Youssef: I made fun of the hat not about the president.

Bob Simon: Oh come on...

Bassem Youssef: I impersonated the hat.

Egyptians across the country laughed themselves silly, but Morsi was not amused by the hat joke. A warrant was issued for Bassem's arrest. He was formally accused of insulting the president and insulting Islam. Serious charges in Egypt, but at his interrogation, he reacted the only way he knew how.

Lampooning Egypt's powerful is risky business 00:55
Bassem Youssef: They called me in an interrogation. It was fun.

Bob Simon: It was fun?

Bassem Youssef: Yes. Because there were some people in the area that were actually fans of the show.

Bob Simon: Now when they read you out the joke, were they laughing?

Bassem Youssef: The-- the-- the guy was reading it with a straight face, but the guy who was actually writing was laughing, and the lawyers were laughing.

He records in this 75-year-old Art Deco theater, built in the same style as Radio City Music Hall in New York.

Bassem Youssef: Each episode, we have 100,000 requests for 200 seats. 100,000 requests, can you imagine that?

Bob Simon: No.

Bassem Youssef: So this is a whole new lobby.

It's a far cry from the chaos or Cairo. His set is worthy of any late night talk show.

Bassem Youssef: And this is, sir, my desk. He's make-- he's keeping my seat warm. Thank you.

Bob Simon: Now, it-- it does-- does have a certain resemblance to "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," doesn't it?

Bassem Youssef: Yeah. But we have a bigger theater.

And a much bigger audience, around 20 times bigger.

Jon Stewart took notice, and invited him to New York to appear on his show.

[Jon Stewart: Please welcome Bassem Youssef!]

Bassem couldn't believe he was there.

Last year in a show of support for Bassem, Stewart went to Cairo. He was led onto the set by a couple of nasty looking guys. This time, it was Stewart who was heading for an interrogation.

["Ladies and gentlemen, Jon Stewart!]

Bassem was the one asking the questions.

[Bassem Youssef: Does satire get you into trouble, I mean, what about the love that you get from the people?

Jon Stewart: I'll tell you this -- It doesn't get me into the kind of trouble it gets you into. I get in trouble, but nowhere near what happens to you.

Bassem may have been in trouble with Morsi, but Morsi was in real trouble. His regime was a disaster, the economy was in shambles, and his Islamist agenda was angering people across Egypt. After months of protests, the military stepped in and deposed him. Some held Bassem partly responsible for demolishing Morsi's reputation.

Bob Simon: Did you help destabilize Morsi?

Bassem Youssef: Of-- well, it's like helping-- what I did is I did a political satire show. If his regime was destabilized because of a show that comes one hour a week, that is a very weak regime. So it's-- maybe it's not about my strength, and maybe it's about their weakness.

Bob Simon: But laughter is a very powerful instrument, you know that better than anyone.

Bassem Youssef: I just wanna have fun, dude. I mean, what are you getting me into?

With the generals now in charge, Egypt became a military dictatorship. Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the new leader, was lionized for having overthrown Morsi. But he was slamming the door on dissent. Since last summer, over a thousand protestors have been massacred. Journalists and dissidents of all stripes have been arrested and tortured. But Bassem Youssef refused be deterred.

Bob Simon: Are you the only voice that's not in this syndrome of pleasing the army?

Bassem Youssef: Let's say that I am not in part of the massive current going in the certain direction to please certain people.

You can see which way that current is flowing. Everywhere, posters of Field Marshal Sisi dominate the landscape. Instead of baseball cards, vendors sell Sisi cards. Pastries adorned with the Field Marshal's face are sold in shops across Cairo.

That was too delicious for Bassam to resist. So in a skit last October, a baker walks in with a tray full of Sisi cakes. At first, Bassem isn't interested. But he soon realizes it would better for his health to buy one.

"Only one?" the baker asks. "You don't like Sisi, or what?"

Bassem hesitates. "OK," he says. "Give me everything you've got."

Bob Simon: And the reaction you got was?

Bassem Youssef: People were laughing. But that's immediate reaction. There's another reaction that we have to deal with it.

And that reaction came a week later. There were protests outside of Bassem's theater, and the network pulled his next episode just minutes before it was due to air. Then the show was cancelled altogether. Was that a surprise?

Bassem's director: "People need truth" 00:39
Bob Simon: These were very powerful people. Weren't you scared?

Bassem Youssef: I'm always not scared. I'm always--

Bob Simon: You're always not scared?

Bassem Youssef: I'm fine. I mean, what could happen?

Bob Simon: They could hurt you.

Bassem Youssef: Like what?

Bob Simon: There are many ways, and we both know what they are.

Bassem Youssef: So it will happen. I mean if it happens, it happens. You should let go of your fears in-- in-- so you can be able to operate.

Bob Simon: And you're able to do that?

Bassem Youssef: I'm trying to. Because sometimes fear is crippling.

Fear is everywhere in Egypt today. But just three years ago, millions gathered across the country to demand freedom. At first, Bassem didn't really participate in the movement. He was a respected heart surgeon...had never shown any interest in politics. But when people started getting bloodied and killed in Tahrir Square...

Bassem Youssef: We got medical supplies, and we went to the square. And we started treating patients, stitching wounds, and in the makeshift clinics in the square. So this was our involvement.

Bob Simon: When you were there tending to the wounded, was this for you, a moment of truth, an epiphany, something like that?

Bassem Youssef: No. It-- I think it was a moment of solidarity. I mean, I'm not into the business of throwing rocks. All I did was just, like, fix the wounds.

Bob Simon: You were being a doctor.

Bassem Youssef: Yeah. I'm just being a doctor.

That experience led him to make an astonishing career change.

He'd always loved the limelight and dreamt about being a comedian, so when a friend approached him about doing his own show on YouTube, he jumped at the chance.

Bassem Youssef: And so we set it up in my house. One camera--

Bob Simon: In your house?

Bassem Youssef: Yes. My spare room. One desk, one camera, and me on the camera writing scripts and getting clips of the media at that time.

Egyptian media had never been called upon to broadcast anything resembling truth. Bassem was a trailblazer.

Bob Simon: When you started uploading onto YouTube, what did you expect?

Bassem Youssef: I expected about 10,000 views. For--

Bob Simon: And, did you get-- did you get 10,000?

Bassem Youssef: I got 5 million.

And then he got an offer any comedian would die for: his own TV show. But that wasn't the only offer on the table.

Bob Simon: You were offered a job as a cardiac surgeon--

Bassem Youssef: Yes, in Cleveland.

Bob Simon: --in Cleveland. You could have had a lovely house, with a white picket fence, and a swimming pool, and a good school. You were being offered the American dream.

Bassem Youssef: From doctor to "Dr. Clown" 01:14
Bassem Youssef: Yeah, the American dream. I chose the Egyptian dream, the dream to make a TV show, and then be called an infidel by the end.

Bob Simon: An infidel, and now?

Bassem Youssef: And now a traitor.

But the traitor, as he's called, began conspiring to make a comeback. After three months off the air, Bassem found another network that was willing to take the risk.

His army of researchers snapped to it, scouring the Internet and the airwaves for new targets to skewer. Even if it was far from certain that there would be another show.

Bassem Youssef: And this is the key, this is the whole key, if you lose faith in what you do, all of this doesn't mean anything.

A day before the taping, Bassem's writers are busy and bewildered.

Bob Simon: What do you think is gonna happen this time? Are you confident that it's gonna be on the air?

Bassem Youssef: Show of hands that we are going to continue without stopping. Show of hands we are going to be pulled off air very soon.

Group: Whooo!

Anything could happen. The police or the army could step in, shut Bassem down before he even gets to the stage. The network could get cold feet.

But they keep on going. The theater has come alive in a frenzy of preparations. Bomb sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, a steel gate.

It's easier to get a ticket to the Super Bowl. Valet parking, a cordon of riot police. Everything but certainty.

Even the people who came to see the show didn't know whether there would be a show.

Female voice: I cannot predict that. I hope so. And, it's gonna be stupid, because the more you ban something, the more like people wanna see it more.

People knew that Bassem would have to be careful this time around. He would try to make people laugh of course, but wouldn't make fun of Sisi. Well, people were wrong. Sisi wasn't spared. Bassem's team spun a wheel hoping to find a TV program that wasn't about the Field Marshal.

First up: A food channel then a fashion channel. It featured jeans signed by Sisi. He couldn't do it. Every channel he turned to had nothing on it but Sisi. Bassem had had enough. He cut to a commercial. The brand of THIS cooking oil? Sisi. As a last resort, he tried a foreign channel. But that didn't work either. While Bassem was ready to pull the trigger, people across Egypt were killing themselves laughing. But will there be an encore?

Bob Simon: The punch line of your next joke could be jail.

Bassem Youssef: Why? Why are you being so gloomy? Just expect the best, man. I will be OK.

For the second week in a row, Bassem's broadcast signal has been jammed mysteriously. Right after the show was knocked off the air this past Friday, Bassem told us: "This has never been done in the history of TV here. We don't know who is doing it and we frankly don't know what to do."

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