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For Bassem Youssef, Egypt's 'Jon Stewart,' satire is no laughing matter

To fans of controversial Egyptian comedian and TV host Bassem Youssef, he's "a pioneer" and "one of the funniest guys in Cairo." To his critics, he's an incendiary force who insults Islam under the guise of free speech. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

By Ayman Mohyeldin, Charlene Gubash and Christina Caron, NBC News

To fans of controversial Egyptian comedian and TV host Bassem Youssef, he’s “a pioneer” and “one of the funniest guys in Cairo.” To his critics, he’s an incendiary force who insults Islam under the guise of free speech.

As for Youssef, he says he’s “just the host of a political satire show” who appeals to people seeking controversy and “a good laugh.”

A former heart surgeon, Youssef developed an online following after posting satirical YouTube clips during the violent 2011 uprising in Egypt. He was eventually offered his own TV show, “The Program,” earning inevitable comparisons to Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show."

“I don't take aim at the president, I take aim at the authority -- because this is what sarcasm is all about. This is what joking and political satire is all about -- not about me confirming with the president,” Youssef told NBC News. “Political satire everywhere in the world is directed towards two things: authority and right wing. I mean, the right wing is amazing -- they're giving us amazing material.”

In fact, he says, perhaps his critics should be thanked for the additional ratings: "It seems they are watching my show more than anybody." 


Fans: Youssef is saying 'what we all want to say'
In one episode he sang to a heart-shaped pillow bearing Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi’s face, and in several others he relied on sexual innuendos to get laughs. Although some have taken offense, the show is viewed by an average of 30 million people on TV, and averages 2.5 million views on YouTube. 

One of those fans, 21-year-old student Mohammed Barakat, said Morsi is just saying “what we all want to say.”

“Every Friday everyone sits with their family to watch [‘The Program’] … It’s a way to escape all the problems and make fun of what’s going on and takes away a bit of the depression,” Barakat said.

If the Muslim Brotherhood tries to shut down the show, Youssef said, “There’s YouTube -- they have to close YouTube then, or they have to put us in jail, or they have to make us flee the country.

“So there are many lovely options out there,” he joked.

But Morsi isn’t laughing. 

Egypt’s top prosecutor issued an arrest warrant, accusing Bassem of insulting Morsi and Islam. Youssef turned himself in and then was released on bail after being interrogated, prompting a stern statement from the U.S. State Department.

It followed several legal complaints filed by Morsi supporters.

Sayed Hamad, a lawyer who filed one of those complaints, said Youssef’s show is “shattering … all the values and ethics that we are used to.” 

For Youssef to wear a giant hat, an exaggerated version of the graduation hat Morsi wore in March when he was awarded an honorary degree, was "humiliating" to the president, Hamad said.

But when Youssef also wore the hat to his interrogation at the prosecutor general’s office, Hamad said it was akin to “a drug dealer who was caught red-handed going into the courtroom with drugs in his hand.”

'You don't have to be petty'
On Monday, the prosecutor general accused Youssef and his TV station’s CEO with disturbing the peace. That day, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" took aim at Morsi’s government.

“When you’re actually powerful, you don’t have to be petty,” Stewart said during his 11-minute segment on Youssef’s arrest. “Bassem is my friend, my brother. There are two things he loves in this world with all his heart: Egypt and Islam. And his family. Three things.”

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to Stewart’s monologue, angering Morsi whose office tweeted: “It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda.” The embassy deleted its Twitter account temporarily then it resurfaced without the link to Stewart’s show. 

At one time, Morsi pledged to uphold freedom of expression. 

When asked in January, two years after the Arab Spring uprising, if Youssef and other critics such as Mohamed ElBaradei need to worry about going to jail, Morsi told CNN, “They are Egyptians, they are part of my family in Egypt, there is no way any harm can befall them because of their opinions or their personal opposition.”

That remains to be seen. With so many admirers of the show, any decision to punish Youssef would likely be met with public outcry.

“I wouldn’t allow it, personally. If it takes us demonstrating to stop it because it’s not just about Bassem Youssef, it’s about freedom of speech -- simple as that,” American University professor Hala Abdel Hak said.

Store owner Ghada Abdel Hak says Youssef has an ability to “put a mirror in front of you in a very funny and smart way.”

“Egyptians now after the revolutions will not shut up,” he said.

Youssef's legal ordeal is far from over -- he could be called back into the general prosecutor's office for questioning, or referred to trial. 

So far, however, he isn’t bending to political pressure. If things escalate and he’s forced to leave the country, he says “he’ll do so with a broken heart.”

Producer Taha Belal contributed to this report.