CAIRO — Amid growing tension at the approach of the June 30 anniversary of Mohammed Morsi’s assumption of Egypt’s presidency, Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” appeared on Egyptian TV Friday night, drawing laughs in a funny yet serious tribute to the importance of satire in a free state.
Stewart was the guest of Bassem Youssef on Youssef’s weekly television show, “Al Barhnameg,” or “The Program,” one of Egypt’s most popular and most controversial shows. Especially since March, when Morsi’s government charged Youssef with insulting the president and Islam for, among other things, wearing a hat that mocked the one Morsi wore on a trip to Pakistan.
Youssef was released on $2,200 bail, and Stewart has stood by him ever since, once devoting 10 minutes of his own show to Youssef’s case.
Youssef introduced Stewart by saying that he had brought in one of the many feared spies of the government. Stewart, wearing a black hood and led by two men in suits, walked in. As he lifted the hood, the crowd cheered.
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Stewart deployed the little Arabic he memorized as he appeared on stage with Youssef, whose show is a weekly news roundup that is styled after “The Daily Show.”
“Shukran” — thank you in Arabic, Stewart said to cheers — and “khalas,” enough, as the studio fans gave him a standing ovation. “Oudou,” sit, Stewart told them, and “Ani regal basset,” or I am a simple man, followed by “Membaasaa al riftya” — I don’t want to be carried.
But he was no match for Youssef, who turned to the crowd and said in Arabic, “They call him the Bassem Youssef of America, and he imitates me.”
He translated what he said to Stewart as: “I just said you are an inspiration to me.”
Stewart, who is on a summerlong break from his show and is in the Middle East making his first movie, also commented on Cairo’s notorious traffic problems (“Have you thought about traffic lights?”) and hospitality (“I am filled up to here with apricots and dates”).
“If your regime is not strong enough to handle jokes, then you have no regime. … Yes, maybe (a joke) is an insult, but it is not an injury,” Stewart said. Youssef “is showing satire can still be relevant. … It is just the opportunity to be heard.”
Youssef dedicated the hour leading up to Stewart’s 20-minute appearance to the increasingly hostile language between Morsi supporters and opponents as the June 30 anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration, when massive protests are expected, nears.
The Morsi government has sought to shore up support in recent days, making promises of aid to Sinai, appointing governors who appeal to both moderate and jihadist Islamists, and gathering crowds of supporters, including Friday, when hundreds of thousands of Morsi supporters gathered and sang Morsi’s praises. Some speakers called for a peaceful demonstration; others suggested it was their Islamic duty to defend Morsi.
The 90-minute show tapes on Wednesday and airs Friday nights. Millions tune in, especially among liberals and Morsi opponents. Often cafes tune all the televisions to the program, and this Friday was no different, with a crowd at one laughing at Stewart’s observations about life in Egypt, cheering when he said how touched he was by Egyptian hospitality, and sitting silent as he spoke about the importance of satire, perhaps unsure of how they were expected to respond in what is supposed to be a democratic Egypt.