Sunday, March 10, 2013

Hope and Change in Egypt

Yesterday I had a chance to hear a talk by Dr. Bassem Youssef, a YouTube and television star in Egypt. Youssef, who was a doctor with no background in politics, started a satirical video program after the revolution, modeled on the Jon Stewart show. His videos almost immediately started getting millions of views. Then he moved his program to tv, with phenomenal ratings. This success demonstrates that Egyptians are starved for this kind of content. Political satire apparently did not exist, or was not allowed, before the revolution, and people are evidently enjoying the freedom to criticize the government, especially when it is done in an entertaining and humorous way.

Youssef was repeatedly asked whether he is concerned about being silenced by the new government, or whether he feels the need to temper his criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood and religious parties. His response was that free speech can only take root in Egypt if people see that he is able to speak so freely and in such a visible way. His best protection from government repression is popular support. In other words, the government seems a little afraid of the people right now. They have a better chance of staying in power if they allow this content than if they suppress it. In a similar way, allowing the Brotherhood to take power rather than suppressing it has put them in a position where they have to deliver, and exposes them to ridicule if they espouse unpopular ideas.

Things may get worse in Egypt before they get better, but ultimately any hope for freedom and democracy in this country and region depends on the people's ability to express themselves and participate in the political process. Political satire seems an essential step to get there.

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