Comedian Bassem Youssef was a star of the Arab Spring and later had a second career in the United States. He now he comes to Germany.

A man with a gray beard opens his blue eyes wide.

Bassem Youssef in London on April 4 and 24 Photo: Vianney Le Caer/Invision/ap

Bassem Youssef was recently a guest of star reporter Christiane Amanpour on CNN. In the program he wore a black jacket whose lining was printed with a Palestinian scarf, a striking protest against the fact that everything Palestinian in the West is now quickly being suspected of terrorism. The television presenter asked him if he had already been stopped on the street. “Not yet,” the comedian responded with a broad, radiant smile. But only because he hadn't put it on yet and he started laughing. “I'm trying it here.”

Laughing at delicate and painful topics: that is Bassem Youssef's recipe for success. The Egyptian satirist was a star of the Arab Spring with his television show. The cardiac surgeon became known through satirical short films that he produced at home and uploaded to YouTube, in which he mocked state propaganda. This portrayed the protesters as drug addicts, perverts and Islamists.

After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in January 2011, he signed with a private broadcaster where he was given his own show, called “Al-Bernameg” (“the show”) and based on the television shows of Steve Colbert and The Daily. Show. remembered in the United States. With the bearing of a serious news anchor, he mocked everything and everyone: the former president, the military, state television, the Islamist opposition and his televangelist. Youssef reached an average of more than 40 million viewers and became the biggest star on Egyptian television.

During the brief reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, he was able to get away with it to a certain extent. They tried to accuse him of allegedly insulting Islam and President Mohammed Morsi, but he was not intimidated. He showed up to a prosecutor's appointment wearing a silly, oversized hat, like the one Morsi had worn on a trip abroad, and exposed the cases against him to ridicule.

risky humor

But after the military took power again in Cairo, the fun was over. After his near-coup, Youssef had to leave his homeland because the new president and former general Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi no longer knew how to joke. In the documentary “Tickling Giants,” released in 2017, Youssef processed his experiences in Egypt fighting for freedom of expression.

Since 2014 he has lived in the United States, where he was introduced as the “Egyptian Jon Stewart.” Like other comedians, he tours the world with his stand-up shows. This year he will come to Germany, to Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. He revealed to Christiane Amanpour that there he would not talk about the war in Gaza. “I can't stand it every day,” he admitted.

Since October 7, 2023, he has become a harsh critic of Israel's conduct in the war in Gaza. His exchange with conservative British presenter Piers Morgan last year was viewed more than 22 million times worldwide. Youssef several times condemned Hamas terrorism there. “I can just condemn Hamas and go home,” he told the moderator when he repeatedly asked him about it and said “Fuck Hamas.”

empty excuses

He praised the Israeli military for warning people before bombing as “so sweet” and accepted that a disproportionate response from Israel would be appropriate. It has always been this way: only the rate of Palestinians killed compared to Israelis killed has changed, Youssef noted, and pulled out a bar graph of the number of victims. In 2014, the rate of Israelis killed compared to Palestinians killed was 1 in 27. “My only question is: What is the current rate?”

And he mocked Israeli propaganda that blames everything on human shields. He could understand it, Youssef said. After all, he himself is married to a Palestinian woman and has tried to kill her many times, but without success because she uses the children as human shields. “I will never be able to turn them off.” At the same time, he pointed out that previous reactions had not solved the problem. “What will be the surprising twist?” he asked the bewildered moderator. His weapons are assertion and exaggeration. But his humor has a serious core.

He accuses the Western media of being one-sided and demonizing Palestinians as “human beasts who live in sewers and decapitate babies.” To get closer to peace, you must first change your perception. Anyone who reduces the conflict to a fight between good and evil, as the American conservative Nikki Haley did, already has the solution: evil can only be eradicated.

Sarcasm as a way out.

Youssef also spoke to Amanpour about the war in Gaza and his wife's relatives, who have fled to Rafah and fear being killed by an Israeli bomb at any moment. “But it's okay, because Israel will apologize for it,” Youssef says, just as he did in the case of the murdered World Central Kitchen employees. “How sincere! “The pain they would have to endure.” A press spokesperson even tweeted: “Look what Hamas made me do.”

The global outrage the case caused was also “interesting” in view of comparable cases, some of which he listed. If Israel decides to end the campaign, she will receive the Nobel Peace Prize, she suspected, for not killing more Palestinians.

Sarcasm is the only way to bear the current situation sanely: Youssef often confuses his Western counterparts with it. “How should I react to you?” Christine Amanpour asked. “I want you to respond to me as if we were both citizens of the same world,” Youssef responded seriously. Youssef is a conciliator.

He has just bought the rights to a book about Mohammed Helmy, an Egyptian doctor who lived in Berlin during the Nazi era and saved some 300 Jews from the Holocaust there. The book is by German journalist Ronen Steinke and Youssef wants to turn it into a film. It takes place in Berlin. He will perform there on Thursday.