Posted by on March 23, 2015 in Blog

By Maha Elsamahi
Winter Intern, 2015

The wave of expression and revitalization of public discourse that came with the Arab uprisings of 2011 has since given way to increased repression and a crackdown on activists, journalists, and even comedians in Egypt. With laws mandating life imprisonment for accepting foreign funding to the ban on protests near official buildings, state policies have made it incredibly difficult for human rights activists to safely continue their work and Egyptian civil society to function normally. Framing these laws within the context of preserving national interests, this narrative often positions activists as individuals working against the good of the country, pitting them against the country’s security services. This crackdown on free expression has dulled the vibrancy of public debate and resulted in the expatriation (self-imposed or otherwise) of some of Egypt’s most prominent cultural and social critics.

Bassem Youssef is the most famous example of a critic in exile. An Egyptian heart surgeon turned comedian, his sharp wit and weekly satirical news show earned him a comparison to The Daily Show host Jon Stewart. From the outset of the protests in 2011 through the election of Mohammed Morsi to the subsequent ascension of the military, Youssef ‘s show Al Bernameg (Arabic for The Program) was widely watched by Egyptians and Arabs throughout the region. The show mocked both politicians and media personalities alike. However, its wide reach (averaging an audience of 30 million each episode) and influence, often pitted Youssef and his staff against the country’s censors. Taken off the air by in April 2014 to avoid influencing voters in the run up to the presidential elections, Youssef finally pulled the plug on the show in June 2014. Citing fears for his family’s safety, Youssef described the end as a victory for the show rather than conforming to the political climate and censors.

The journey of Youssef and the Al Bernameg staff was recently documented by Daily Show Senior producer, Sara Taksler, in her documentary Tickling Giants. Funded partly through donations from an on-going crowdfunding campaign, the documentary follows not only Youssef and his staff, but also the struggles of Egypt’s everyday civil society activists who continue to labor under increasingly stifling conditions.

Civil society activists have spoken out about the increasing pressures they face, highlighting the incredibly difficult environment under which they continue to operate. Along with facing increasing surveillance, the laws restricting NGO operations have only compounded the beleaguered status of Egyptian activists, driving them further to the margins of Egyptian public debate. Even participation in United Nations commissions and reviews opens organizations and individuals to the possibility of retaliation and retribution. In November 2014, seven Egyptian human rights organizations released a joint statement outlining their refusal to participate in the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the status of human rights in Egypt for fear of reprisals.

The vilification and portrayal of human rights organizations and activists as being a destabilizing force within the country is only furthered through the state and privately-owned media—which often acts as an extension of state media. Following the release of the UN’s 2014 UPR on Egypt, both state-owned and private media glossed over the UNHRC’s 300 recommendations—an increase from 165 recommendations in 2010—and inexplicably celebrated the damning human rights report as a victory over the country’s rivals and critics. In addition to the external pressures they face, many activists have reported increases in depression, PTSD, and a general decline in mental health following the violence they have witnessed and experienced since 2011. The pressures and let downs have been so great that it even drove several activists to suicide last year, with one activist writing “there is no justice…we’re lying to ourselves just to live.”

Currently a Fellow at the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, Bassem Youssef is continuing to highlight the important role of satire in shattering taboos in the Middle East. In a recent interview in the Wall Street Journal, Youssef noted that satire does not bring down regimes “but just brings more people to the table.” Rather than fostering an environment in which a multiplicity of idea, opinions, and perspectives are given a forum to be aired, each successive government since the fall of Mubarak has progressively increased restrictions on Egyptians’ ability to speak and act without the fear of retribution. The attempt to extinguish a dynamic public discourse and the exile of activists will only rob Egyptian society of the opportunity to foster a tolerance for differences in thought and opinion.  If a government sees critical thought and discussion as a threat to its national interests, it does not reflect well on its own internal sense of strength and resilience.

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