As Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his government continue their campaign of intimidation and oppression against critics and dissenters, the world has started to take notice of this increasingly thuggish regime. Popular Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef has come under attack by Morsi's government for daring to mock the president's policies, mannerisms, and outfits, while the television station that hosts his show is being threatened with a revocation of its license. Jon Stewart and the U.S. State Department have both stepped forward to defend Youssef.
On Monday's The Daily Show, Stewart lambasted Morsi for assaulting freedom of speech in Egypt:
Stewart, the most prominent and influential satirist in the United States, criticized Morsi's hypocritical pettiness for trying to silence Youssef, going so far as to play a clip where Wolf Blitzer interviewed Morsi saying that Youssef specifically would be free from censorship. Stewart then aptly pointed out: "By the way, without Bassem Youssef and all those bloggers and journalists and protesters who took to Tahrir Square to voice dissent, you, President Morsi, would not be in a position to repress them."
The United States Embassy in Cairo, which has seen a fair share of controversy in the past, delved into the debate by tweeting a link to Stewart's full-throated defense of Youssef. The official Twitter feed of the Egyptian Presidency did not take too kindly to this, responding with: "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland issued a statement on Monday blasting the Egyptian government for its arrest of Youssef, citing the incident as "evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression." Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, warned that Egypt is at a "tipping point" and expressed concern over the crackdown on human rights. This comes less than one month after Secretary Kerry traveled to Egypt, met with Morsi, and announced that U.S. taxpayers were giving another $250 million to this same government that the State Department is now criticizing.
Silencing the opposition by targeting satirists is a common tool of dictators. Power relies very much on perception. When there is no rule of law and respect for human rights, a scenario that comes about when power is consolidated in the hands of an individual or a small group of people, then perception is everything. Comedians and satirists mock those who hold power, in part because it is funny, in part because they can, and in part because it shows that those who govern are foolish mortals like the rest of us.
When power is based on perception, though, mockery of those who wield power decreases fear of those who wield power, leading to people feeling more comfortable challenging that power. In this way, comedians help give oppressed people power — something expressed wonderfully by another persecuted comedian, Zarganar of Burma, who said that jokes often help to "ignite the brain of the people."
This is why Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood fear and hate Bassem Youssef. The new Egyptian government, like the old Egyptian government, has rejected the rule of law and seeks to rule through power alone. As exemplified by its persecution of critics, the Egyptian government plans to use the tool of fear to wield this power. By mocking the government, Youssef makes his countrymen less afraid. By making them less afraid, he makes the government less powerful. Laughter is more powerful than fear, and like Mubarak before him, Morsi will soon find himself regretting trying to stifle it.