In the aftermath of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, Bassem Youssef made YouTube videos from the laundry room of his home. The work was voluntary, it was a favour to his friend and he already had a consuming day job as a heart surgeon.
Now, he’s often called “the Jon Stewart of the Arab world” – a comparison that makes Bassem Youssef chuckle.
Youssef calls the US comedian and former The Daily host his number-one inspiration and friend.
But he says, “I think he’s sick and tired of hearing my name with him in the same sentence.”
“Being compared to him is a huge honour … but I feel like this poor guy, he has this Egyptian leech!”
Yousseff sat down with The Feed as he prepared to perform stand-up comedy in Australia for the first time as part of a worldwide tour.
A viral moment is born – Youssef takes on Piers Morgan
With his ground-breaking brand of political comedy and wit, Youssef was already a household name in the Middle East, most known for his show Al-Bernameg (The Show in Arabic). Each week he attracted 30 million viewers, with millions from Egypt and many more others tuning in from the region and in countries from the diaspora abroad.
Last month, his popularity grew exponentially again, going viral worldwide after he was invited on Piers Morgan’s show to discuss the Hamas-Israel war, in a dark, satire-ridden interview that left the British journalist “uncomfortable”.
In the interview, Youssef joked about killing his Palestinian wife – “they’re very difficult people to kill … I try to get to her every time, but she uses our kids as human shields”.
The pair debated a proportionate response to Hamas’ attack on Israel on 7 October when around 1,200 Israelis were killed, according to the Israeli government, and at least 240 taken hostage. Youssef condemned Hamas’ actions, while pointing out the number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank over the past decade.
He waved a graph comparing the number of Palestinian deaths to Israeli deaths. Youssef highlighted the 2014 ratio of 27 Palestinians killed for every Israeli, calling it “a very good exchange rate”.
The Feed’s Michelle Elias sat down for a chat with Bassem Youssef. Source: SBS
Youssef told The Feed satire is about exaggerating reality to hold a mirror up to society – “I guess if you’re going to kill 10, I’ll have to kill a hundred”.
“Even the person with the most radical approach will stop for a second, like, ‘Wait, I don’t want to go that far’,” he said.
An outspoken critic of Israel in interviews and on social media, Youssef questioned how Israel’s actions – for example, issuing warnings before bombings – would be perceived if done by Russia.
“How f-ckin cute. That is so nice of them. With this logic, if Russian troops started warning Ukrainians before bombing their houses, we’re cool with Putin, right?” he told Morgan.
Israel has stated its military aim is to destroy Hamas in the wake of the recent attack. Immediately 7 October Israel placed Gaza under siege while bombarding the enclave ahead of a ground invasion by troops. Gaza health officials in the Hamas-run territory say 11,000 Palestinians have been killed in the ongoing bombardment.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel’s military will engage in tactical pauses, but has refused to engage in a ceasefire while hostages are held.
Despite on-screen tension between Youssef and Morgan in their first interview on the topic, Youssef appeared on the show a second time and gifted the journalist za’atar and olive oil from the West Bank.
“He loved it … he said, please thank your wife for the olive oil,” Youssef recalls.
“I’m the one who bought it!”
From TV darling to exile
Youssef forged his career mocking Islamist groups in Egypt. He’s known for criticising the Muslim Brotherhood, who were elected in Egypt before being overthrown in 2014, and Al Nour, an ultra-conservative political party in Egypt that emerged after the Egyptian revolution.
Poking fun at Egypt’s ruling elite, including the president and the military, he was forced to finally flee in 2014, fearing for his safety – though he previously dreamed of moving abroad.
Bassem Youssef was one of Egypt’s most popular TV personalities, with a weekly viewership of around 30 million people. Source: Getty / Bobby Bank
“We had that much following, that much fame, exposure and suddenly everything is taken away from you and you have to start from scratch. It’s very humbling,” he said.
Youssef found himself rebuilding his life after migrating to the US. Although he’s back in the spotlight, he says fame can be toxic.
“Forty million people have an opinion about me,” he said.
“Too much fame, too much exposure is not right. That’s not human.”
Unity through comedy
Now that he’s back on the comedy circuit, Youssef is using humour as the bridge between the Arab world and the West.
“One of the most common sentence[s] that you hear from Arabs all around the world is, ‘Oh, the West doesn’t care about us, so they don’t listen to us’. And I think part of it is that we don’t speak to them with their language,” he said.
And he hopes laughter might pave more connection.
“When you see other people as humans, as equals, as people who have the same feelings, the same problems, the same struggles … we have an equal footing of how we treat each other as humans, with respect, with love,” he said.
His message to Arabs in Australia: “Bring along your white friends, every Arab bring five”.
“They need to be the part of the joke. I mean, you colonised the world, the least that we can do in return is to make fun of you!” he said.
And while he’s known for his political commentary, he says it’s a big weight to carry.
“I’m not a freedom fighter, I’m not a political leader. All I have is a few words here and there, and if it resonates with people, that’s amazing.”