ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
And we're going to focus now on one of the many changes in Egyptian life after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak - the right to poke fun at government and media hypocrisy, something that could not have been imagined just months ago. Exercising that right is a new program on YouTube, which is hosted by a man who fancies himself an Egyptian Jon Stewart.
Brooke Gladstone, host of WNYC's On the Media, has the story.
(Soundbite of music)
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is not the theme for the "Bassem Youssef Show," although it was written by its sound designer Mustafa al Halwany(ph). At the moment, this lightening-paced YouTube production hasn't got room for one, but someday soon it may. Bassem Youssef's audience is growing as fast as a snowball rolling down a hill and it exemplifies everything that is new about media in post-revolutionary Egypt. As goes Bassem, his producers contend, so go the Egyptian media. And as go the Egyptian media, others speculate, so go the rest of the regions.
Tarek AlQazzaz is general manager at Baraka One Web, a production company that is actually making money posting original content on YouTube, itself a revolutionary act. But when Tarek cooked up a show starring his old friend, Bassem Youssef, he was enmeshed in the other revolution in Tahrir Square, where Bassem, a heart surgeon, was attending to the wounded.
Tarek told him...
Mr. TAREK ALQAZZAZ (General Manager, Baraka One Web): I need to shoot something for the revolution and I know that you have Jon Stewart everywhere in your, in your being, OK, and I'm like, let's do the Egyptian version.
Mr. BASSEM YOUSSEF (Host): I always dreamt of having something like this in Egypt, where you actually have no limits in satire.
GLADSTONE: Bassem Youssef venerates Jon Stewart.
Mr. YOUSSEF: I mean, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert works on how ridiculous the media is. And the 18 of the days of the revolution we were actually the home of stupidity. It was like juicy, wow, I mean, it was a gold mine.
(Soundbite of show, "Bassem Youssef Show")
GLADSTONE: The�"Bassem Youssef Show"�is formatted like�"The Daily Show" minus the interview. An appealing everyman sits in front of a screen airing absurd clips from the media, the bizarre statements of politicians, and reacts accordingly, with wisecracks and funny faces and the occasional prop. He's the rational viewers' surrogate, who in desperate times is in desperate need of a laugh.
Mr. YOUSSEF: I'm amazingly modest and fantastically humble, and I'm really, really up there in being down to earth.
GLADSTONE: Bassem's is the most subscribed to show on YouTube in Egypt. It's expanded from 5 to 15 minutes and, last Friday, he drew legions of fans when he dropped in on the ongoing protests in Tahrir Square. His favorability ratings are soaring.
Mr. AMR ISMAIL (Executive Producer, "Bassem Youssef Show"): We just, we don't want lies.
GLADSTONE: Amr Ismail is Bassem Youssef's executive producer.
Mr. ISMAIL: We are living 30 years of lying on each other, makes us hating each other. So, right now people are close to each other. They want the truth, they want everything to be clear - in the media, in social life, in dealing with each other - just clearness.
GLADSTONE: Topics of past shows, state media's attempts to demonize the protesters in the square, conspiracy theories involving Kentucky Fried Chicken, really. And the cynical use of religion as a goad to influence the vote on the recent referendum on the constitution. Bassem sets real news clips of people predicting doom to music, and delights in the panic-mongering.
(Soundbite of show, "Bassem Youssef Show")
Mr. YOUSSEF: Let's play a game together called The Great Terror.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
Mr. YOUSSEF: The elections will come quickly if only the Muslim Brotherhood are prepared for it.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
Mr. YOUSSEF: One would control the country, enforce Islamic Law, cut your hands and feet. But if you leave it to the people, an infidel may come to power. A Christian will rule. The cops will control you. The crusaders arrived in Mansoura. This is a good game.
GLADSTONE: The show's most profound resemblance to "The Daily Show" is in its resolute moderation. As when Jon Stewart suggested signs for people to carry at his Rally to Restore Sanity.
Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): Here's a quick one - I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GLADSTONE: In a recent episode, Bassem, for the first time switched gears, as Stewart sometimes does, from strategic snarkiness to sincerity. It felt like a big risk.
Mr. YOUSSEF: My face totally changes in front of the camera and I say, there's been like a thick boot on everybody's neck for 30 years. And when the boot is lifted, it's expected that everybody will scream and you will hear things that you don't like.
GLADSTONE: The stakes are monstrously high in Egypt right now, and the media's role is crucial. As Bassem's patron saint once said...
Mr. STEWART: The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire.
GLADSTONE: By the way, the YouTube title of the "Bassem Youssef Show" is "B+," after Bassem's blood type. Get it? B positive. It's been hailed by some as the next big thing in Egyptian media. Tarek, who launched the show, predicts an almost certain future for Bassem Youssef on satellite TV.
Mr. YOUSSEF: This is why I'm panicking.
GLADSTONE: This is why you're panicking?
Mr. YOUSSEF: Yeah. This is why I'm panicking.
Right now we are not actually voicing my opinion, but you can't just be in the middle being neutral. When you start, actually, to discuss current events, you will have to take a stand. You will actually have to piss some people.
This kind of honeymoon will not last. Sarcasm here in Egypt, in the Arab world, is very new. Once you make sarcasm about certain person, this guy takes it very personally. You see Jon Stewart making fun of McCain and he's hosting him the next day, right. Here, that doesn't work this way.
Mr. ISMAIL: We are five years away. We are five years away from this.
Mr. YOUSSEF: No, we're actually 50 years away from this, seriously.
GLADSTONE: Then again, many believe that what happened in Tahrir Square would take 50 years. And it might have without the engine of the Internet to help redirect the nation's hopeless passivity into popular revolt. Egyptian youth increasingly desert the mainstream media, dismissing its so-called objectivity as a pose, an excuse to evade unpalatable truths. For them, trust is based solely on transparency.
And though this may send a shudder down the spines of established journalists, it is a true liberation for populations across the globe lied to from cradle to grave. This does not auger the end of journalism, but it does point to a future where expertise is embraced, but only when it can be verified, ignorant voices cannot be suppressed and it falls to individuals to sniff out uncorrupted information.
The authorities who have spent the last half century or more subsidizing brazen fabrication may howl. But for now and for a long time to come, those who bother to listen will likely be laughing.
Brooke Gladstone, for NPR News.
SIEGEL: Brooke Gladstone is host of WNYC's On The Media, which is devoting its entire program to Egypt this week.