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'Egyptian Jon Stewart' Bassem Youssef Will Now Satirize U.S. Democracy
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'Egyptian Jon Stewart' Bassem Youssef Will Now Satirize U.S. Democracy

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'Egyptian Jon Stewart' Bassem Youssef Will Now Satirize U.S. Democracy

'Egyptian Jon Stewart' Bassem Youssef Will Now Satirize U.S. Democracy
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Bassem Youssef created what became the most popular TV show in Egypt's history, but the government had the show cancelled, and Youssef fled Egypt.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bassem Youssef, has often been called the Jon Stewart of Egypt and his show was known as "The Daily Show" of the Arab world. The comparison is no coincidence. Youssef modeled his show on "The Daily Show," and as a result of his TV show's success, he's been a guest on "The Daily Show." Youssef is a former heart surgeon. He provided medical care to protesters in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Revolution. After the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Youssef began producing a series of short political satire videos he hosted from his home and put up on YouTube. The Web series was so successful, he was offered his own TV show by the Egyptian network ONTV. That's when he gave up medicine. His TV show became the most popular TV series in Egypt's history. But Mohamed Morsi, who was elected president after Mubarak's fall, didn't appreciate being satirized. In 2013, Youssef was accused of insulting the president and insulting Islam. The prosecutor general issued a warrant for Youssef's arrest. He turned himself in and was interrogated for six hours before being released on bail. The incident prompted Jon Stewart to send this message to President Morsi in an episode of "The Daily Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JON STEWART: But come on. Charging Bassem Youssef with insulting Egypt and Islam? I know Bassem. Bassem is my friend, my brother. There are two things he loves in this world with all of his heart - Egypt and Islam. And his family. There are three things. There's three...

AUDIENCE: (Laughter).

STEWART: And what is that flatbread with the cheese, it's tart? It's, like, a white - it's not baba ghanoush. It's, like, there's four things that he loves.

AUDIENCE: (Laughter).

STEWART: My point is, Bassem Youssef loves Egypt so much, he chooses to live there even though some crazy guy is threatening to arrest him. Oh, right.

AUDIENCE: (Laughter).

STEWART: By the way, without Bassem and all those journalists and bloggers and brave protesters who took to Tahrir Square to voice dissent, you, President Morsi, would not be a position to repress them. For someone who spent time in jail yourself...

AUDIENCE: (APPLAUSE)

STEWART: For someone who spent time in jail yourself under Mubarak, you seem awfully eager to send other people there for the same non-crimes. And just like you, they will only emerge from prison stronger and more determined. So all sending comedians and bloggers to prison accomplishes is lowering the quality of prison yard athletics.

AUDIENCE: (LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Youssef's case was eventually dismissed, and he returned to his TV show. But the leaders of the military coup that pushed out President Morsi didn't like being satirized, either. Youssef's show was terminated, and he got out of Egypt. He's been living in Dubai, but right now he's in the States working on a new series, titled, "The Democracy Handbook" that will premiere this spring on the Fusion channel's new digital platform, F-Comedy. On February 8, he'll speak at the New York Live Arts's Live Ideas festival presented in partnership with the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The theme is Cultural Transformations in the Middle East North Africa Region. Bassem Youssef, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a description of the show that you hosted in Egypt. Since it's in Arabic, I think few Americans have actually seen it.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: I thought Arabic was your first language. Well, my show in Egypt was called, "The Show," or, "Al Bernameg" in Arabic. Basically it was a political satire show. It started on Internet by three, four-minute episodes and then it evolved into a live show in a theater, which was something that was unprecedented in the Arab world. And so that was the show.

GROSS: Jon Stewart's show is pre-recorded but it's in front of a live audience. And you were the first show in the Middle East or in the Arab world to have a live audience. Was the government afraid of that?

YOUSSEF: Now, at that time, you have to remember there was, like, a kind of hope and a window of free speech that so many people were allowed to create and be creative and do what they wanted. So at that time, the people was much stronger and we dictated what we wanted. Later, of course, it was - things got a little bit different and the pressures were much stronger. But at that time, no, the government didn't have a say of, like, what to allow and what not to allow.

GROSS: Can you describe a segment that was on your show that got a really big audience reaction?

YOUSSEF: When we were satirizing the government announcement that they have invented an AIDS machine, a machine that cures you from hepatitis C and AIDS.

GROSS: Wait - can I interrupt? The government said that they had a machine that cured AIDS?

YOUSSEF: Yes, yes.

GROSS: What was this machine supposed to be?

YOUSSEF: (Laughter). It looked like a mini dialysis machine where they actually said, like, we're going on cure your AIDS and we're going to cure your hepatitis C. It was a big thing in Egypt. I mean, if you look up, like, Egyptian AIDS machine, it was huge. And of course it was one of the most lucrative material that we had and that was very fun. People were actually waiting for me every week to mention something about the machine. And we did because they promised the people that in six months, the machine would be ready for mass consumption. And we were actually having a timer, a countdown timer to remind people that, you know, it's already three months now and we're waiting. And I think maybe this is one of the reasons why we were stopped because we were holding the people in power accountable for what they said. I mean, it is very depressing to see that in the 21st century people are still using the same 1950s and '60s style of propaganda. We have Internet now and people are not stupid. But it seems that some people are trying to push the same agenda of the Cold War of conspiracy theories and amazing achievements that are very easily traced and validated so...

GROSS: So this was supposed to be an amazing achievement that would show how great your government was.

YOUSSEF: Yes.

GROSS: OK. So what happened in six months when they didn't produce the machine?

YOUSSEF: Well, my show was pulled off the air before the six months. (Laughter). So the timer continued, but online with everybody else. So every year, we would celebrate the date for the never-existing AIDS machine.

GROSS: That's great. OK, so you started your show after the Egyptian revolution that overthrew President Mubarak. And then under President Mohamed Morsi, who was elected after the revolution, he accused you of insulting the government - wait, I have a list here of the - well, you probably know it by heart, but I don't...

YOUSSEF: Yeah, it was a big list.

GROSS: You can recite it, yeah.

YOUSSEF: Well, I was accused of insulting the president, insulting Islam, insulting - spreading rumors, disturbing the peace. But it was not him, just to be fair. I mean, the way that things happen in Egypt, the government - or the head of the government - don't get personally involved. They were always goonies and agents and people who do that kind of work for the government either by direct instructions or because they think that they're doing something good or they want to be on the good side of the government. It is about creating an atmosphere where you hold people or like accuse people of whatever crazy stuff because of what they say. And this happened during Morsi, before Morsi, after Morsi. It's still continuing. And that was ridiculous because now you're having a joker who is up against the government. And we are always at the risk of being accused of something. And I think by the time I left Egypt, there was about like 400 accusations against me in the drawer of the public persecutor office. It's a way for them to exhaust you, to push you, to put you under pressure, to distract you. And that's a very old style that we are known for in the Middle East.

GROSS: Were you disappointed that the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution, didn't bring the kind of free speech that it stood in support of? That you still couldn't - that you still couldn't host a satirical show on television without getting detained and interrogated, which was one of the things that happened to you.

YOUSSEF: Well, detained and interrogated is the one of the least things that happened. I mean, afterwards we were - the signal was jammed a couple of times. We were banned a couple of times. I lost my show when I had to leave the country. So, yes, the disappointment is big. But, like, I want to look at the bigger picture. When we overthrew Mubarak, we did this in 18 days. And because we were very naive and very unexperienced in revolutions, we thought that that was it. It is very difficult to imagine that you can actually get rid of a dictatorship that has been there for 60 years only in 18 days. So we were very naive. We thought that that was it and that we were ready. And - but if you have like a very brief look to what happened in the world and the history of revolutions, it never takes 18 days. It takes decades. And I always tell people that a revolution is not an event, it's a process. It is a struggle. And it doesn't usually go smoothly.

GROSS: So at editorial meetings for your show, did you sit around with the writers and think, well - and talk about, OK, if we say this, this will be really funny. It also might get the show pulled off the air. If we say that, that could be really funny, and we might all be put in prison for it. So what kind of calculus did you do with that?

YOUSSEF: We had this all the time. It's like we crack the funniest jokes ever. But, you know - and I'm sure it happens everywhere. I mean, I'm sure even in America, where you have, like, free speech people self-censor themself. And it's not - it happens because of different reasons. Because maybe it's politically incorrect, it doesn't have to really to be put in jail. So people here kind of bend down for the pressure - the public pressure. Back in Egypt, we had both. We had the public pressure and we had the problem of getting in trouble. So, yes, we would actually joke about, like, ah, this is the joke that's going to close the show. That's the one that's going to end it. And, yeah, sometimes we had really funny jokes. But we couldn't put everything. We had to be very careful. But it seems that it was not about, like, the quality of the jokes or, like, how offensive or how strong the joke is because I think the show was, at a certain point, destined to be pulled off the air any time. So we were - I think we were betting when was the show would be stopped? And eventually somebody won the bet.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bassem Youssef, who became known in the U.S. as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world after the Egyptian revolution when he hosted a satirical news show in Egypt inspired by "The Daily Show." That show was basically forced off the air in 2014 because he satirized the government. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bassem Youssef, who became known here as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world after the Egyptian revolution when he hosted a satirical news show inspired by "The Daily Show." But then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi accused him of insulting the president and insulting religion. And then the military regime replaced Morsi. They didn't like being satirized either. This all led to the demise of his show in 2014. And he's since signed a deal to create a satirical show in the U.S. that will be on the Internet and will premiere in April. We'll talk about that a little bit later. So when you were detained and interrogated in Egypt, one of the things they did is play clips from your show and ask you about that. What did they need to know from the clips? I mean (laughter) what did they want to know from you? It's - like, you're not a CIA agent. You don't have access to, like, intelligence. You're a surgeon who became a satirist, so why were they playing your clips? What kind of questions did they ask you?

YOUSSEF: Well, first of all, about the CIA agent, I have a joke for you about that, but let me tell you first about the interrogation. So because I was facing things like insulting the president, insulting Islam, insulting whatever, they would actually play the clips for me to see if I've actually insulted. And they would actually play it for me and they asked me what did you mean by that? I said, like, well, it's a joke. And they said, like, well, yeah, what did you mean? Are you satirizing the president? And I was like, no, I'm just saying it as it is. And they're like, why are the people laughing? I was like, well, you know, you should ask them. And the worst thing ever that you have to explain your joke because I was very disappointed trying to explain why the joke is funny (laughter) for the interrogator. So he would ask me why - why they - why are they laughing? I said, like, well, they are laughing because of this (laughter). But let me get back to the CIA thing...

GROSS: Yes.

YOUSSEF: ...Because this is one of the conspiracy theories that was actually used against me. They actually - people went out there and they wrote articles and went on television shows saying that I am an operative that the CIA who used Jon Stewart to recruit me. So Jon Stewart, who actually - a guy from America was used by the CIA in order to recruit me for the CIA and be - make me a CIA agent to use sarcasm to bring down the government and bring down the country because this was all, of course, part of a worldwide conspiracy against the country.

GROSS: And this was clearly because Jon Stewart proved so successful in ending Fox News, which he criticized all the time. And he succeeded. It doesn't exist anymore, so he was teaching you how to overthrow the government.

YOUSSEF: Yes, yes, yes, I - he is the grand master and I am his (laughter) his follower.

GROSS: That is so far-fetched.

YOUSSEF: I mean, we are actually - I mean, we're laughing about this but seriously there are people who believe in Egypt that I - I'm actually - I'm getting paid by external powers and external intelligence entities in order to use satire to bring down the government. And it was believed by people from both sides. This was said about me during the Islamist era. This was said about me during the military era. And this sense of paranoia was very, very strong. I'm not saying that everybody said that, but it was the people who used that in order to discredit me. And you'll always find people to believe that. And if you think that this is far-fetched, well, we can talk about the conspiracy theories in America.

GROSS: Absolutely.

YOUSSEF: The only thing is that - the only difference is that the government doesn't move in order to arrest someone based on a conspiracy theory. Or it doesn't, like, shut someone's show because of a conspiracy theory. You know, so you can compare these people who believe that, like, we need to end the war because of the rapture. So (laughter) we can - you can choose your own poison.

GROSS: The thing is when people believe a conspiracy that is not rooted in reality at all, facts don't seem to sway them in any way, so...

YOUSSEF: It doesn't matter. Facts doesn't matter.

GROSS: Yeah.

YOUSSEF: And here's my biggest issue with this - people would believe, propagate, spread rumors or conspiracy theories in order to protect their own system of denial. So because if you are living - the only the way that you can live and function without seeing the facts in front of you is to put yourself in a constant state of denial. So it's not because the system is a failure. No, it's because you guys want to bring down the system. And it happens whether you are on the religious right or you are on the military right. So you will actually form your own system of denial in order to keep believing in what you're believing and anybody who's trying to tell you the truth is part of this conspiracy. It doesn't matter if the truth is right there out in front of your eyes. You will find a way, a mechanism, in order to keep your own system of denial. So as I always say it, denial is a river that runs in the - in Egypt. So we became very good in that.

GROSS: When you were detained, Jon Stewart in the U.S. on "The Daily Show" did kind of a commentary about that, about how he was your friend and he didn't realize he was consorting with a criminal. And he quoted some of the things that Morsi had said about your show, charging you with, you know, insulting the president and insulting Islam. Then he showed a clip of Mohamed Morsi - of President Morsi - telling people to - these were older clips - telling people to nurse their children on hatred of Zionism and a clip of Morsi calling Zionists bloodsuckers descended from apes and pigs, so an example of him doing exactly what he charged you with doing, which is insulting religion. So as I watched that when it was happening I was wondering was that going to help you or hurt you because he is clearly expressing his - his deep connection with you, his deep friendship with you and his, you know, solidarity with you. At the same time, if it got back to President Morsi that Jon Stewart was satirizing Morsi on your behalf, I don't think President Morsi would've liked it very much. So did that have any impact, do you know, and did you think it was a good thing or a bad thing that he was doing that?

YOUSSEF: Well, we have to look at this in context. At that time, although the Islamist regime was trying to get its own way in government but they were not strong enough to stop a program or, like - they tried but they couldn't because the people were against him. They kind of alienated the people in Egypt and it was difficult for them to operate through that. So here's, like, a paradox I'm going to tell you. So when Jon Stewart came to my defense, the anti-Islamist regime hailed that and, you know, said, like, this is amazing. You see, like, we shouldn't crack down on free speech, and you Islamist guys are, like, facists and whatever. When Jon Stewart came to my defense after Morsi - because I did the same thing with the regime that followed Morsi - the same people who hailed the move for Jon Stewart, they actually believed in the same conspiracy theories that the Islamists were propagating. And so, like, oh, you are asking for support from the West and from people who want to bring us down. It is very - it was a very, very interesting process to see the same people who stood next to you now because you are criticizing the regime that they support that they would use the same kind of lies and conspiracy theories that was used by the people against them. And I think that the religious and the military right wings are just two sides of the same coin if somebody uses God and religion and somebody uses country and security. And the people who hailed the support from outside just used that against me afterwards, which is very funny.

GROSS: My guest is Bassem Youssef. His Egyptian TV series of political satire was modeled on "The Daily Show." It was attacked by the government and was terminated in 2014. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bassem Youssef, who's become known in the U.S. as the Jon Stewart of Egypt. Youssef is a heart surgeon who gave up medicine to start a show of political satire in Egypt after the revolution overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. But even after the revolution, it was risky to satirize the government and Islam. Youssef's show was attacked by the government. The show was terminated in 2014 and he left the country. He recently moved to California and is working on a new satirical web series about American democracy that will premiere in the spring on the Fusion channel's new digital platform. What was Egyptian TV like when you started your show?

YOUSSEF: A little bit, like, you know, locked in the '80s. We had, like, talk shows that went for hours. And the only popular shows were the ones that was imported, like franchised. Like we had our own "Arab Idol," our own "The Voice". So these were the popular ones - entertainment, light entertainment, drama series and talk shows that went for hours. To have this kind of show, it was totally different. And it was a revolution. And maybe we are off the air now, but I'm very happy to see that people now are trying to replicate the kind of show that I was doing, but of course with a much lower ceiling.

GROSS: What kind of comedy did you grow up with? Did you grow up with comedy?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, of course. I mean, everybody grows up with comedy. I mean, Egyptian comedy has a very, very old tradition. Our theater and our movies are just, like, amazing. And Egypt is kind of like the Hollywood of the Middle East. I mean, we had cinema maybe decades before the other Arab countries ever got independence. So we had - of course, we grew up with the Egyptian comedy and of course with a lot of American comedy. I watched, you know, the sitcoms - the "Friends," "Frasier," all of that, you know, lovely American culture - and with the American movies as well as the Egyptian movies.

GROSS: So you made the switch to satire after becoming a successful heart surgeon. And you were in Tahrir Square treating injured protesters during the Egyptian revolution. How did you decide that that's where you wanted to be at that moment?

YOUSSEF: Well, at that moment, I didn't really plan ahead. At that moment, there was two things on my mind - first of all, what's going to happen in this revolution? And second, I had my papers - I was waiting for my papers from Cleveland where I was accepted in a pediatric heart surgery hospital.

GROSS: Yeah, you had been accepted at the Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital...

YOUSSEF: Yes.

GROSS: ...Which is affiliated with Case Western Reserve University. And this was...

YOUSSEF: Very good. Very good (laughter).

GROSS: So you'd already spent, like, seven years in medical school, 12 years training in heart surgery.

YOUSSEF: Yes.

GROSS: You had this - what? - a fellowship in Cleveland at this hospital, which is a pretty big deal.

YOUSSEF: Yeah, the papers were, like, you know - they were a little bit delayed with the lawyers and stuff. And I was waiting for it, so I would apply for my H-1 visa at that time. And, you know, after the revolution ended, the 18 days, I started to show in the Internet because during the 18 days I would go to the Square and I'd see the people. I would treat the people. I would go back home and I see the lies and deceit and the brainwashing on television. I said, like, you know what? This is not right.

GROSS: Wait, let me stop you again. Give me an example of what you saw when you were working as a doctor treating wounded protesters in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution and what you heard reported on television news. Give us an example of contrast.

YOUSSEF: So what I saw day-to-day is like people who are actually asking for freedom, calling for freedom - protesting, singing, chanting, calling for the removal of the regime - plain and simple. And of course there were clashes there because people, they tried to remove those protesters from Tahrir. And I was, like, doing my job as a doctor treating them. So that's what I saw in real life. When you go back home, this is what you saw in Egyptian media. You saw all of these people calling and reporting ridiculous reports about those are operatives, those are spies, they are paid 50 euros and one bucket of the KFC dinner box in order to be there. So they were talking about how these people - operatives of the CIA, the Mossad, the Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran, Qatar - all at the same time. You would see reports about how America has infiltrated these people and they're sending their own spies in order to lead the revolution. So you would have people going out on television asking for bombing Tahrir Square or putting them under siege until they are die out of hunger. You had people, like, interviewing people with, quote, unquote, "inside information about this is all a conspiracy from America and these are all spies." And so I had so many - so I said, this is not what I saw. This is all propaganda. So, like, just to kind of summarize it in one sentence - imagine Fox News but everywhere and more crazy and more non-credible. This is what we had. So I decided, like, you know, I want to do this. And I really didn't expect that people would watch my show. At that time, by the way, just to mention, there was no - absolutely no original Arabic content on YouTube. So I was actually the first one to go out with his face on the Internet and talk about stuff to people through YouTube.

GROSS: I'm shocked to hear that. Why weren't there - was that because of government restrictions, or?

YOUSSEF: No, there was, like - it was something that is not known in Egypt, you know? You may have to remember, it's 2008 - 2011 sorry. So maybe, like, two, three years this was - even YouTube was still, like, you know, becoming big in the States. It was not as common as it is now. People didn't know that, oh, we have - we can have actually a third window other than, like, radio and television. So I start to do this, and I said, look, maybe I'll have 10,000 views - that will be nice. You know, something - I'm, you know, I'm spending my time until my papers come from Cleveland. And suddenly, in two months, I have five million views and it is the show that everybody's talking about in Egypt.

GROSS: So let's talk a little bit about growing up in Egypt. Your father, who I think died pretty recently after an auto accident - I'm very sorry that you lost him. Was that very recent?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, that was eight, nine months ago, and yeah, my mom also died, like, a year and a half ago. But - so yes, I lost both of my parents.

GROSS: Your father had been a judge in Egypt, and for a while, he was the head of the administrative court of the state council. What was that? I don't know what that means.

YOUSSEF: It's basically he was the head of the court that would judge in disputes between the government - between government entities and each other.

GROSS: OK, that's kind of a complicated position when you're working with a dictatorship, right?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, but for a very long time, the judiciary was very independent. And my father maybe enjoyed one of the last days when he actually was independent, and he ruled a lot against the government. And because that, he was actually put into early retirement. So in a way, he was a revolutionary in his own self. He had a very impressive track record and how he - especially during Mubarak because he actually ruled to overrule many of the election results during the 2000 elections during Mubarak, the parliament elections. And he has a very, very impressive and pristine track record which I'm very proud of.

GROSS: So what was it like for you growing up with a father who ruled against the government - controversial rulings? He was forced into early retirement as a result. Did it make you feel like to be defiant was great? Were you afraid of the consequences he and the family might face?

YOUSSEF: Well, here's the thing. I can tell you something about both of my parents. My mom has also had her struggles because the wife of the prime minister at that time during Mubarak was in her same department. She was a professor of business administration, and she also stood against her and the government. So I come from a family who have revolted against the government in their own way. However, when I was on the show, they were always asking me to hold back because it's different when it's your son out there. As a matter of fact, they did not approve of many of my revolutionary messages, and they said, like - maybe it's different because they were getting older and they didn't want any trouble. But it was very interesting to see that during their own career lives they didn't shut up and they didn't stop and they didn't hold back, but when it has to come to their son, they were very protective.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bassem Youssef, who became known as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world after the Egyptian Revolution when he hosted a satirical news show in Egypt, a show inspired by "The Daily Show." Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bassem Youssef, who became known here as the Jon Stewart of the Arab world after the Egyptian revolution when he started hosting a satirical news show inspired by "The Daily Show." But the then-Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, accused him of insulting the president and insulting religion. And that, and other things, led to the demise of the show in 2014 and to Youssef being detained and interrogated. He has now signed a deal to create a show for the American cable channel Fusion TV - an American satirical web series in April that's going to satirize American democracy. So you've been in the states for about a month. And I imagine you've been watching the coverage of the presidential campaigns and the lead up to the Iowa caucuses, the speeches, the night of the Iowa caucuses. So I'm so interested in your impressions. And I suppose we should start with Donald Trump saying - though he said this before you came, but I'm sure you're aware of it - that, you know, that the United States should not allow Muslims into the country.

YOUSSEF: Well, I think Donald Trump trade is just to offend everybody and see how it works. And I think - I don't care about Donald Trump himself. I care and I worry about the very big base that supports him because this kind of language would have been absolutely nonexistent maybe 15, 20 - by the way, I follow the American elections, and I have never seen someone who is that offensive. I have seen people who are stupid. But stupid and offensive, that's new. And the problem is the rising amount of support that this kind of narrative is gaining in the United States is what worries me. It's not what - who says it. And these people are using the fear. And they're using the hate. And they ride on that. And you have a lot of people supporting it. I mean, who would know - who would've - like, if you mention this 16 years later, you would think that George W. Bush is sane and he is, yes, a little bit of a brain compared to what's happening now. But the thing is Donald Trump is not stupid. He knows exactly what he's saying. And he's just saying out there - I mean, forget about Muslims. He said I could go down on Fifth Avenue in New York and shoot someone in the face and people - and the voters will have no problem with it. This transcends any kind of religion and any kind of belief. This is actually an offense and attack on human values. He's just saying out there I will shoot people in the face and people wouldn't care.

GROSS: On the day of the Iowa caucuses, Donald Trump said that he'd been told by people in his security that there were people with tomatoes ready to throw tomatoes at him when he spoke. So he told his audience, if you see somebody with tomatoes, knock the crap out of them and don't worry about lawsuits because he would pay the legal fees.

YOUSSEF: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you hear that or read that? And I wonder what went through your mind.

YOUSSEF: Well, this is a demagogue. I mean, this guy, if he was dressed into some sort of a military attire and he is from the Middle East, I mean, he would just, like, fit right in if you changed the language. This kind of, like, using the people, galvanizing the people in order to do hateful stuff, physical stuff and it's like, don't worry, you're protected, is absolutely no difference from what's happening in the rest of world dictatorships. And, I mean, let's call things as they are. He is a fear monger, and he is a racist and a bigot - as simple as that.

GROSS: So you've been living in Dubai, right?

YOUSSEF: Yes, for a year after I left Egypt.

GROSS: How did you choose Dubai?

YOUSSEF: Well, a number of things - it was closer and the producer of my show, who actually fled Egypt before me because they arrested his father and brother, went to Dubai, so there was already a set up there. So for me, it was a good transitional, like, zone area to be there before I moved to the states.

GROSS: That's terrifying. They arrested his father and brother as a way of sending him a message?

YOUSSEF: Well, I mean, we have some sort of a Greek tragedy because he was the producer of my show, and his father and brother was members of the Muslim brotherhood. So it doesn't really matter if you were...

GROSS: Oh, I see.

YOUSSEF: ...If you were involved in terrorist attack. Just being in that group is enough to actually arrest you. So I don't - because, like, I know for a fact that his father was at home. He didn't participate in anything. And the fact that they have actually arrested him on the night of my comeback and making fun of the present regime sends you a message. So at that time, he was on a business trip in Dubai, and he never came back when he saw his father being arrested.

GROSS: And did seeing that help inspire you to leave?

YOUSSEF: No, it took me another year. And I continued with my show for another season until I was shut down. I didn't actually leave until they went to, like, a court of law in order to get an arbitration case against me. It was a sham verdict, of course. It was strange. It's a little bit complicated. My - the TV channel that was hosting my show ended my show. And we went to court. And they actually asked for a compensation. And they got it for 15 million dollars, which is crazy, right? Because they are the one who actually shut down my show. So, like, when that verdict came out, I knew that - they knew that I don't have 15 million dollars. They knew that I can't pay that. So I knew that they will use this in order to ban me from traveling or put me in jail, so I escaped.

GROSS: You escaped?

YOUSSEF: Yes, I did.

GROSS: So you weren't able to just kind of, like, leave normally? You had to escape?

YOUSSEF: No, I mean, like, I got on a plane just four hours after the verdict because I don't know how that play out.

GROSS: Right, right.

YOUSSEF: And maybe, looking back, I think this was the right decision to do.

GROSS: How nervous were you that you wouldn't make it out?

YOUSSEF: I was very nervous. And I was very nervous, and I was very worried about what will happen. But thank God I was not stopped in the airport. But the minute I landed the other side, I opened Twitter and social media, and the news of the verdict was all over the place. So, yeah, maybe we kind of, like, had a very, very, very, like, close break.

GROSS: So I wish you all success in the U.S.

YOUSSEF: Thank you.

GROSS: Will you be moving here?

YOUSSEF: Yeah, I'm already living in northern California in the East Bay, where it's very nice and pleasant. And it's a beautiful state to be in.

GROSS: Well, I wish you the best. I will be looking for you and looking for your web series when it starts.

YOUSSEF: Yes.

GROSS: Thank you so much and be well. And thank you so much for doing this interview.

YOUSSEF: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Bassem Youssef will speak at the New York Live Arts - Live Ideas festival on Feb. 8. His new satirical series, "The Democracy Handbook," will premiere in the spring on the Fusion channel's new digital platform. Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new album by alternative hip-hop artist Lizzo, who's recorded with Prince. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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