2015 has already been an interesting year for late-night comedy.
I’m not talking about the end of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, though I will miss them. I’m talking about Jon Stewart’s lesser-known counterpart, Bassem Youssef.
Originally a doctor, Youssef rose to prominence after a web series he and his friends made when the 2011 Tahrir Square protests went viral, evolving into “El Barnameg,” or “The Show.” Three seasons and hundreds of millions of YouTube views later, Youssef has moved on to a fellowship at Harvard University.
His meteoric rise is nothing short of impressive. But the trajectory of his comedic career exposes greater truth about Egypt’s so-called Tahrir Revolution. As explained by Egyptian historian Hazem Kandil and Tufts’ own Professor Hugh Roberts, it wasn’t as rosy and successful as many in the West wished.
They argue that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was far from a true revolution. They are right that the so-called Egyptian revolution brought new faces while leaving the foundations and trappings of familiar authoritarianism intact.
Recently ousted former President Muhammad Morsi offers a particularly well-suited example. Known to many Egyptians as “the spare tire,” Morsi was far from the top choice for the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate. Rather, election law in place dictated that no one who had been imprisoned or arrested by the Mubarak regime could stand for presidential elections. So much for progress, reform and open elections.
What is even more frustrating than the fact that little – if any – serious progress has been made since 2011 is how naive some have been since the first protests of Khaled Said’s murder.
In its dangerous flirtation with political correctness, the West has become obsessed with rapid and premature democratization. It is time that Western idealism be met with a dose of reality, bitter a taste as it may leave.
Democracy, especially of the viable or sustainable type, does not happen overnight. Good things take time, so the adage goes. Critics jump at the chance to respond to this fundamental truth with claims of American-centric imperialism and the like.
It did not, by any means, happen overnight here in the United States. It took years of war and a constitutional charter — the Articles of Confederation — which rendered government too weak to function. It took the country’s hinging on failure for necessary democratic reforms to be conceived and passed.
The fact of the matter is that ill-conceived democratization can make people worse off. The Egyptian economy suffered as tourism plummeted and unemployment rose drastically in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power. Only now, under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, is the Egyptian economy on its way to getting back on track and to restoring tourism and employment to pre-2011 levels.
We must also accept the fact that Egypt’s reality is double-edged. While the economy appears to recover under Sisi’s authoritarian regime, Bassem Youssef was effectively coerced off the air by the regime. Youssef has said that his show is over, but I’m still holding out hope for a fourth season sometime in the future. Either way, it is a stark reminder that free speech and expression remains repressed.
Where Sisi will take Egypt in the future is unclear. Nonetheless, it is time for the West to begin considering how (or maybe even if) we can reconcile Egypt’s resurgent political and economic stability with familiar authoritarian tendencies.