Remember the Arab Spring? That democratic fluorescence that erupted in late 2010 in Tunisia and spread with massive demonstrations to Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq? It was a giddy, dangerous time when a predominantly youth movement rose up against autocratic regimes steeped in conservative Islamic ideology. Through riots and violent government crackdowns, people poured into the streets pressing for change. In Egypt, Bassem Youssef was one of the unlikely people at the forefront of the massive cultural shift. A heart surgeon turned satirical TV host, Youssef was dubbed the Egyptian Jon Stewart. Tickling Giants, the documentary from Sara Taksler, follows Youssef’s meteoric rise and lamentable fall, as a funny, principled man becomes an enemy of the state. As Donald Trump demonizes the media in America, Tickling Giants is even more resonant than when it debuted at festivals last year, revealing both the power of satire and its harsh limitations.
The dictator Hosni Mubarak was Egypt’s leader when the rumblings of the Arab Spring began. Inspired by the satirical news of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, Bassem Youssef began making his own comedic YouTube posts pillorying the long “serving” President. Views were through the roof, and Youssef quit being a surgeon to become a full-time comedian. As Mubarak’s regime collapsed, Youssef began broadcasting his own serial news satire, The Show. Capitalizing on newfound freedoms while the media was still largely run by the state, The Show brought something novel to Arab media: humorous critique. Fresh from under a heavily repressive regime, people were thirsty for Youssef’s perspective. While 2 million people in North America watch a given episode of The Daily Show, Youssef soon found himself with an audience in excess of 30 million people. The Show became the most watched TV show in the Middle East.
The conservative leader Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won Egypt’s election in 2012, its first freely elected leader ever. It didn’t take long for the country to start back-sliding, this time with the government taking on the harsh strictures of religion. (Egypt had been relatively secular under Mubarak’s military influenced rule.) Charming but unceasingly critical, Youssef’s satire took direct aim at Morsi’s regime. When Morsi was awarded an honorary degree which he accepted in academic dress, Youssef donned a gigantic outfit to mock him. It didn’t take long for Youssef to be arrested and charged with contempt of Islam for insulting the President. An Egyptian court threw out the charges. Morsi lasted just over a year, before being deposed by the military under General El-Sisi for constitutional overreach. TIME magazine named Youssef one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
The problem with nascent democracies is there are no institutions to protect citizens’ rights, no historical norms to fall back on. Even now in the United States, the Constitutional protections that constrain Donald Trump are creaky and slow. In Egypt, the military had been enmeshed in the state apparatus for decades. It didn’t take long for Sisi to assert his own authority, suspending the country’s constitution while insisting that Morsi’s overthrow wasn’t a coup. The people, united before in their fight against Mubarak, splintered, with Islamic factions supporting the deposed Morsi and others praising General Sisi for returning Egypt to its former greatness (the echoes go on and on).
The Show continues in the midst of escalating strife, but now Youssef has to contend with physical threats. Angry crowds protest outside the studios, saying The Show is insulting to Sisi and the Egyptian people. Security on-set is heightened, and bomb-sniffing dogs are brought in to patrol the building. A bewildered Youssef wonders how to make fun when the situation is so grim, but they carry on, even as network bosses come by to tell him to “ease up a little.” The father of one of The Show‘s co-creator is arrested and imprisoned, and then the network cancels the program. They told Youssef he could continue, as long as he didn’t “criticize authority.” Youssef was appalled, saying “this show is about holding authority accountable, regardless of who is in charge… [We] make fun of their differences, they can laugh at each other instead of hating each other.”
Youssef found another network to air The Show in 2014, just as Sisi decided to run for President. Journalists were increasingly viewed as traitors and jailed. Going to air, The Show‘s signal was jammed, pushing it off the air as women protesting outside called for Youssef’s execution. His old network sued Youssef, accusing him of making content they couldn’t televise. As Sisi won the election with one of those ludicrous 97% approval ratings dictators always manage to achieve, The Show was permanently shut down. Youssef lost the network lawsuit, with a judgment of 100 million pounds against him. The award was the largest media judgment in Egyptian history. Facing the prospect of jail for himself and his family, Youssef fled the country to America.
Tickling Giants traces Youssef’s rise and fall, making its case for satire as a weapon against dictatorship. Here in North America, Saturday Night Live‘s scathing skits seem to have left the biggest marks on Trump’s fragile ego. Seeing the courage, humor and dedication of Youssef’s staff is inspiring, especially the number of Egyptian women working on The Show to create a voice outside the hegemony of pharaonic power. Youssef and Jon Stewart share a wonderful affinity over the course of the film. Youssef’s clearly modelled his comedy closely on The Daily Show, while Stewart admires Youssef’s bravery immensely. Appearing on The Show in 2013 in a hilarious bit where’s he’s brought out hooded like a prisoner, Stewart observes “a joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. It’s just a joke.” True, but the authoritarian mind fears ridicule. As Youssef says, “Sarcasm is a perfect remedy to fear. When you laugh, you aren’t afraid anymore.” What’s sobering is to realize that for all these funny men have accomplished, the fight is far from won. Satire, documentaries and investigative journalism can all shine a light. Only the collective will of people can push out the darkness.
Tickling Giants appears in Toronto as part of TIFF’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival (March 29th-April 6th). The film plays on Saturday, April 1st at 6:30 p.m., at the Toronto Bell Lightbox. Director Sara Taksler (a Daily Show producer) will be present at the screening, along with guests Vice reporter Ben Makuch and Fereida Deif, the Canada Director of Human Rights Watch. You can find more information here. In the United States, the film is currently on a limited run theatrical engagement.