We’ve all been schocked and outraged by the almost relentless assault on the “lyin’ media” coming from the lips of the most inveterate liar the planet has ever seen. Fortunately, we can take solace that the respectable media outlets have not only stood tall, they have flourished. Viewership numbers for outlets like MSNBC and CNN are up, and FOX News aging demographics have their share shrinking. Not only that, but the rise of Trump has led to a renaissance in print journalism, with mainstream newspapers hiring more investigative journalists to cover the deluge of breaking leads. But if you’ve ever carried a 12 pack home from the store when you car was in the shop, you know that by the time you get to the end of the second block, your arm is falling off. That’s what relentless pressure will do to you.
Last night I watched what was at the same time both an incredibly entertaining, but deeply disturbing documentary on Showtime called “Tickling Giants,” about an Egyptian doctor by the name of Bassem Youssef. Youssef was a surgeon in Cairo who was invigorated by the events of the Arab spring in Egypt. He also had something to say. Yousef did it the old fashioned way, with a weekly video show online. One man, in one room, with one camera, that’s it. He borrowed heavily from Jon Stewart, giving the current Egyptian political news with a heavy dose of sarcasm and satire.
His online viewership went through the roof, to the point where he was offered a weekly show on a main Egyptian television station. He covered the downfall of Hosni Mubarek, and the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi. Then he covered the downfall of Morsi, and the rise of the military takeover led by General Sisi. And all as the only show openly criticizing and lampooning the Egyptian political world. At his zenith he had 30,000,000 viewers every week. People started calling him the “Jon Stewart of Egypt.” He made a guest appearance on “The Daily Show,” and a couple of years later, Stewart returned the favor, appearing live on his show in Cairo.
When it went south, it went south fast. Starting with the rise of the generals in control of Egypt, not only did he start getting pushback, so did the television station. They canceled his show. Another station picked him up and put him back on the air, but when Sisi was elected President of Egypt, the show was canceled again. Then his first network sued him for breach of contract, and as retribution they were awarded a ridiculous $100 million settlement. Dr Youssef now lives in exile for fear of being imprisoned for not being to pay the settlement if he returns.
The documentary is disturbing for two reasons. The first is that it is a graphic, chilling example of what can happen to the media when a government decided to use its position of power to muzzle a free and independent press. Youssef never threatened violence, nor did he foment dissent. He simply used sarcasm and satire as a way of presenting an alternate point of view, not “alternative facts,” simply an alternative point of view. And he was crucified for it.
But even more chilling was the reaction of people who didn’t like Youssef in the first place, whipped into a frenzy, first by Morsi, and then by Sisi. Angry supporters of the regime called him every name int he book. At one point, police had to be dispatched to protect the front of the television on taping day, there were loud and emotional arguments between protesters and people going in to see the show. Sound familiar? He was branded by pro government protesters as a traitor to Egypt, and in watching the protesters in front of the station, chanting in unison, I had no problem in believing that they were screaming the Egyptian version of “Lock her UP!” Worse yet, they branded him as a traitor to Islam. And in a Muslim country like Egypt, being branded as a traitor to Islam is like having an unofficial bounty on your head. No wonder Dr Youssef now resides somewhere else with his family.
This is exactly what happens when a government leader decides that he, and he alone is the arbiter of what is fact, and exactly what facts the “people” are entitled to hear and see. It happened in Nazi German y, it happened in Egypt, and if we don’t keep our shit firmly together, it is exactly what Trump plans to try and do here. Below is the entore documentary on You Tube. You might want to give it a peek.