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Pathbreakers of Arab America: Bassem Youssef

posted on: Nov 22, 2023

Photo –Youtube

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the twenty-third in Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our twenty-third pathbreaker is Bassem Youssef. Born in Egypt to Muslim parents, Bassam Youssef is a renowned figure in the realms of comedy, activism, and medicine. Fleeing Egypt due to his comedic criticism of the government, he came to the U.S. on his journey from cardiology to satirical comedy and the role of political activist.

Bassam Youssef’s multifaceted life, from a medical career to comedy, and a pivotal role as a political activist

Bassem Raafat Mohamed Youssef (باسم رأفت محمد يوسف) was born in Egypt on March 21, 1974. He was raised in an environment of tumultuous social and political change, fostering in him a sharp sense of critical analysis and later leading to a career in cardiothoracic surgery. However, in searching for relief in coping with the stress of the medical profession, he turned to comedy. During the harsh political setting of the Arab Spring in 2011, Youssef created a takeoff on American comedian Jon Stewart’s comedy show, first appearing on YouTube as “The B+ Show” (after his blood type). This was followed his creation of a TV show named “Al-Bernameg” (literally, “The Program”), much like Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”

Youssef graduated from Cairo University’s Faculty of Medicine in 1998, and by 2007 he passed the United States Medical Licensing Examination and has been a member of the Royal College of Surgeons. He practiced as a cardiothoracic surgeon in Egypt for 13 years, until his move into comedy and political satire. Youssef also received training in cardiac and lung transplantation in Germany, after which he spent a year and a half in the US working for a company that produces medical equipment related to cardiothoracic surgery. In January 2011, he assisted the wounded in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

Just as Youssef was about to head to Cleveland to practice medicine, he was lured into staying in Egypt by an offer from Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris to launch “Al Bernameg.” The show included 104 episodes and premiered during Ramadan, in 2011. It parodied popular Egyptian personalities and nurtured free speech on the social and political scene. In June 2022, Jon Stewart invited Youssef to “The Daily Show” for an extended interview, praising him, saying “I think the world of what you’re doing down there.” The segment was one of the highest in viewership on “The Daily Show’s website.” Such praise fostered a boldness in Youssef that led to his criticizing key political personalities, namely Egypt’s first truly democratically elected President, Mohamed Morsi.

Youssef was sued for insulting Islam, and Morsi, and” disrupting order and peace.” Under the subsequent president, Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi, he felt that the political climate in Egypt was too dangerous to continue the show and ultimately fled the country. Youssef now lives in Los Angeles, California with his Palestinian-Egyptian wife and two children.

Photo — lifeodad

Youssef’s career in the U.S., bridging the gap between entertainment and activism, making a global impact on the use of humor to challenge authority and advocate for societal change

Youssef’s residence in the U.S. has resulted in a significant space for his voice to be heard. An appointment as a resident fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2015 is prestigious in itself. He collaborated with “The Daily Show” in launching a crowdfunding campaign to promote a documentary about his own career. Also in 2015, Youssef hosted the 43rd International Emmy Awards in New York City. In 2016, he was a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, where he explored the topic, “political satire and its role in disrupting political, social and religious taboos.”

Youssef has been richly rewarded over the years for his contributions to free speech and human rights initiatives. In 2013, he was named one of the “100 most influential people in the world” by Time magazine and one of Foreign Policy magazine’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers. The committee recognized his role in the media to Protect Journalists, which awarded him with the International Press Freedom Award. In 2015, Youssef received an honorary degree and delivered the commencement address for the College of Online & Continuing Education at Southern New Hampshire University.

Youssef, enters Egypt’s state prosecutor’s office to face accusations of insulting Islam and the country’s Islamist leader Photo The Atlantic

The 2023 Israel-Hamas war has drawn Youssef’s attention and provided an important context for Youssef in bringing attention to that tragedy. In particular, an interview with “Piers Morgan Uncensored” gave him the opportunity to speak satirically about that war and the broader Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Youssef drew comparisons with the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war and the tactics used by the Israeli military, and how it would be perceived if it was the Russians, not the Israelis, attacking. A video of the interview attracted 17 million views, becoming the most-viewed video on the channel. In yet a second interview on the war with Morgan, Youssef mostly refrained from satire, this time becoming highly serious on the subject.

Despite the adversities, Youssef’s commitment to his principles never wavered. He continued his advocacy for free speech and human rights, using his platform to shed light on the challenges faced by activists and journalists in Egypt. His global influence expanded, and he became a symbol of resilience against oppression, standing firm in his beliefs despite facing threats and opposition.

So, here we have a physician, a comic, and an activist in Bassem Youssef, a highly compassionate human being who uses his empathy and his medical experience to express the ills of society. He employs the powerful tool of comedy to unveil the social and political ills of the day. Youssef bridges the many cultural and political barriers, through combining humor, entertainment, and activism, challenging authority, and encouraging social changes.

When asked if he will ever return to Egypt during the current military regime, and if he misses it, he resoundingly responded, “no.”

–Wikipedia Biography of Arab Americans, “Bassem Youssef,” 2023
–“Bassem Youssef: The Jon Stewart of the Arab World,” Arizona State University-PBS, 1/19/2022

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, and is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

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