Jon Stewart v. Muslim Brotherhood

April 5, 2013

For Americans, it was Jon Stewart as national treasure. In a virtuoso performance Monday, the American satirist ridiculed the Egyptian government’s crackdown on Cairo comedian – and Stewart protégé – Bassem Youssef. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch Stewart’s mock conversation with Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi here.

“What are you worried about, Mr. President – the power of satire to overthrow the status quo?” Stewart deadpanned. “Just so you know, there’s been a grand total of, uh, zero toppled governments we’ve brought about.”

In Egypt, members of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood saw Stewart’s bit differently. The comedian’s skewering of Mursi was the latest insult from a nation that backed Egypt’s pro-American dictators for decades. Told that cracking down on comedians was playing poorly in Washington, a usually moderate senior Brotherhood member argued that Western notions of free speech were being used, yet again, to denigrate Islam.

“Yes, the same West that supported the burning of the Koran!” the member told American journalist Lauren Bohn this week. “We need to draw red lines.”

Egypt’s political polarization is intensifying. Crucial parliamentary elections have been delayed until October. Both sides are increasingly engaging in street violence and vitriol. Opposition leader Mohammad ElBaradei compared the government to “fascist regimes” on Twitter this week. Mursi vowed to “break the neck” of anyone who throws a petrol bomb on the street.

“I’m worried,” Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor and leading Egypt expert, said in an interview. “This is a broken political system. It’s a system that can’t reach a consensus.”

While it’s tempting to avert one’s eyes from Egypt’s post-revolutionary political train wreck, no Arab country is more important to the United States. The Arab world’s most populous nation, Egypt is the Middle East’s cultural capital and the site of an epic power struggle between conservatives and liberals that will influence the region’s politics, culture and faith for decades.

Opposition members have seized on the Youssef case as the latest example of overreach and intolerance by the Brotherhood. But the group’s political Achilles’ heel is its handling of the Egyptian economy and growing lawlessness, including a spate of sexual assaults that have polarized the country. Showing extraordinary bravery, Egyptian women have publicly described horrific gang rapes in a series of stories broadcast by Egypt’s newly independent news media, the New York Times reported. Religious ultraconservatives have cravenly blamed the victims.

Inflation has nearly doubled since November, the country has lost $4 billion a year in tourism revenue since the revolution and unemployment is officially 13 percent ‑ but actually far higher. To receive a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, Mursi must cut government food and fuel subsidies for average Egyptians. As Stewart dryly put it, post-revolutionary Egypt is “a work in progress.”

It’s a stretch, but there are silver linings. The Youssef case, for example, is a testament to the indomitable spread of globalization and technology. A Cairo surgeon-turned-comic has created a wildly popular Egyptian version of The Daily Show that skewers the country’s political elite on one of Egypt’s 30 new satellite television stations.

Since the 2011 fall of President Hosni Mubarak, criticism of authority has exploded across Egyptian society, a trend that the Brotherhood is now clumsily trying to stem. Youssef’s case is one of up to 33 filed against comedians, activists, politicians and bloggers in just the past two weeks. Last month, protesters attacked television stations and at least three prominent journalists after Mursi criticized the press.

The response from the Obama administration – like its initial response to Egypt’s revolution ‑ has been confused. The U.S. embassy in Cairo initially tweeted a link to Stewart’s monologue.

When Mursi’s office tweeted in reply that it was “inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda,” the embassy shut down its Twitter account without conferring with Washington, according to Foreign Policy. The embassy Twitter account later reappeared, without the offending Stewart tweet.

In Washington, meanwhile, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated the tweet was “inappropriate.” Yet she also bluntly criticized “growing restrictions on the freedom of expression “in Egypt.

The mixed American response confused Egyptians, according to Bohn, the American journalist. In interviews this week, several Egyptians said they don’t know what Washington wants.  

Emboldened Muslim Brotherhood members, meanwhile, vow to press ahead. In the Youssef case, Brotherhood members filed formal legal complaints with prosecutors accusing the comedian of breaking antiquated laws that criminalize insulting Islam or the head of state. They are demanding that prosecutors, who are nominally independent of the government, fully prosecute Youssef.

In a blunt statement on its website, the group dismissed State Department calls for free expression.

“They will have only one interpretation in the Egyptian street,” the group predicted, “the U.S. welcomes and defends contempt of religion by the media.”

Peter Hessler, in a telling posting for the New Yorker on Thursday, suggested the Brotherhood may be right. Hessler described how his Arabic language teacher viewed the dispute. Angered by a wildly inaccurate description of Stewart’s monologue in an Egyptian newspaper, the teacher saw Stewart as part of a Jewish conspiracy.

“Do you know who this Jon Stewart is?” the teacher asked Hessler. “He’s a Jew, isn’t he?”

The teacher also argued, however, that the Brotherhood was using the case against Youssef to distract Egyptians from the country’s dismal economy.

For now, it’s unclear whether the Brotherhood is losing the broad support that allowed it to sweep post-revolutionary elections. Public opinion polls show Mursi losing popularity in urban areas and among youth — but retaining strong approval in poor, rural areas.

Brown, the George Washington University professor, argued that the Brotherhood is politically vulnerable. He said Egypt’s transition would be best served if the opposition ended its current boycott of the parliamentary vote and ran hard.

“The opposition has an opportunity here,” he said. “They’re not going to win the next elections but they could win the ones after that.”

A free and fair parliamentary election must be held as soon as possible. Opposition groups should follow Brown’s advice and begin the long, slow process of building political organizations. Washington should make $1 billion in promised American aid contingent on democratic norms. And Jon Stewart like satire should not be a crime.

Egypt is awash in conspiracy, distrust and despair. Mursi has miscalculated over and over. So have his opponents. Egypt’s best hope is that they resolve their differences at the ballot box – not in court and on the street.


PHOTO (Top): Riot policemen stand in front of Brotherhood members during clashes near the Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo, March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

PHOTO (Insert A):Bassem Youssef (C) arriving at the high court to appear at the prosecutor’s office in Cairo March 31, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

 PHOTO (Insert B):Jon Stewart in New York City March 26, 2011. REUTERS/Jessica Rinaldi


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And we give a rats rear end if they have democratic elections in Egypt because? Keep the billion and spend it on cutting the debt. Why does our government continue to give away money to countries that don’t like us…Mr. Rand Paul?

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive

All dogma is mental illness. It is broken physiological processes. Let us hope the fine citizens of Egypt utilize some of their new-found freedoms to read Voltaire.

Posted by Nurgle | Report as abusive

Freedom of speech is absolutely necessary for democracy – deny it and embrace tyranny (and not the silly tea-bagger nonsense they call tyranny – I mean brutal crushing wanton avaricious capricious totalitarian rule, not light social reforms). Which is one of the main dictate of Islam, the unchallengable dictatorship based on ‘laws’ written over 1400 years ago by a peasant turned warlord. If they can complain of western influence/interference than we can complain about their lack of freedoms and human rights.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

Also, there are more muslims in India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, than in Egypt – why do reporters keep saying it is the most populous muslim country? If you mean in the Middle East or Africa then say so because it certainly is NOT in the world.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

America has little choice but to watch this pot as it boils over. Perhaps, like Bond’s martini, it must be shaken and not stirred?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

This is a complete masturbatory homage to a so-so comedian. Are you going to send him flowers as well?

Posted by wmiller55428 | Report as abusive

A good starting point for anyone wanting to get a better understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood’s core beliefs would be the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Any search engine will bring up the basics.

Posted by RGee | Report as abusive

How is that Arab Spring brought to you by FB & Twitter working out…tick tock…

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

In response to “rebel”. Tryannies do not happen over night. They start by taking one right or freedom away at a time. Sometimes it happens so slowly that the people do not know it because they still trust those in power to have their interests and safety at heart. Luckily for us here in the US we have a Consitution and Bill of Rights that allows us to tell the political class to back off. That is if we are brave and serious enough to do that. That is what the Tea Party did and was there while Obama was still playing the race card on Clinton. Have you ever used the term tea-bagger to someones face or only in an anonymous post? Another tough guy.

Posted by armyboy | Report as abusive

How is this incident not a simple continuation of Jew vs Muslim that has been going on in the Middle East since 1948? The US is clearly on the side of Israel no matter what the situation, so why is anyone surprised with the behavior of either side? This is a red herring.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

@CDN_Rebel – this story states that Egypt is the most populous Arab country – which is correct.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

Bringing “freedom” to some places on earth is like pulling all the damping rods out of a nuclear reactor all at once. It will become overheated and possibly explode.

All societies seem to live with some traces of dogma and they aren’t restricted to religions. Dogmatic opinions are as common as dirt. The poor like them because they save time and a lot of mental effort. They have to survive some way or another and freedom of thought and action seems to correlate with leisure and freedom from want. None of that seems to be in great abundance in Egypt now.

Voltaire – like Nurgle mentions -is almost common sense and remember what happened. It’s also debatable what side of the revolution he may have actually supported. He was fortunate to die before the Revolution and could enjoy the status of patron saint. Otherwise he might have gone to the scaffold too. If he survived the terror he might have been at risk of loosing some of his luster. He was loved by many of the aristocracy and even the likes of Frederick the Great and Catherine II of Russia. He had the wrong friends.

@CDN_rebel: I never heard a better description of tyranny.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive