CAIRO, Egypt -- A Beyonce lyric graces the door to the office of Egypt's most famous satirist: "All the single ladies, Bassem is here!"
Past the door, Bassem Youssef's office is a testament to the comedian's eclectic tastes. There is a life-sized cutout of Angelina Jolie and a golden brown painting of Arabic calligraphy. There is a copy of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" and Anthony Shadid's "House of Stone." There is a dartboard and a plate inscribed with a design that celebrates Egypt's pharaonic heritage. There are rubber duckies -- one dressed in a tuxedo, one as a chef, and one as a devil -- scattered throughout the room.
Youssef is not just funny -- he matters. His arrest by Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-aligned prosecutor general ballooned into an international event, as he showed up at the court wearing a massive version of the graduation hat President Mohammed Morsi wore in Pakistan, and tweeted from inside the prosecutor-general's office that he had been arrested solely so the police officers and lawyers could take pictures with him. His April 24 appearance on the fake news set of Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" was a body blow to those in the United States who argue the Brotherhood can be prodded in a democratic direction. "They are insecure," Youssef mused to Stewart. "They are locked up in their teen-age years. They still have pimples and have to deal with their, I don't know, bodily hair."
Youssef's satirical news program "al-Bernameg" ("The Program") has also become one of the sole, unapologetically liberal rejoinders to the Morsi government and Islamist political dominance of post-revolution Egypt. At a moment when Egypt's opposition appears hopelessly fractured, liberals, socialists, and Nasserists alike can all agree on one thing: They love Bassem.
It has been Youssef, not the diverse array of opposition politicians, who has developed the sharpest critique of Islamism. "We have a facade. We have a pseudo-appearance of what Islam is," he told Foreign Policy. "Islam's not just about covering your hair. It's about how you treat other people. If you cover your hair or you have a beard, and then you are being a douchebag to other people, that's not Islam."
It's impossible to avoid the omnipresent description of Youssef as "Egypt's Jon Stewart," but the two comedians share more than a similar style. Just as Stewart took off during the George W. Bush years among liberals who felt alienated by the status quo, Youssef's show speaks to secular Egyptians who feel marginalized by the Islamist ruling class.
Thirty million viewers tune in for each episode of "al-Bernameg," according to the channel that hosts it, CBC. Cafe crowds shush and dinner parties stop when Youssef comes on -- for a certain segment of Egyptians, it is not just a comedy show, but a political event.
Youssef is well aware of how much his popularity owes to the Morsi administration, and to the military government that came before it. "Sarcasm all around the world is always against right wing and against people in power," he said. "That's the definition of political sarcasm. And having the [Egyptian] right wing in power is like having George W. Bush in power: It's a gold mine for everybody."
There is a slapstick element to Youssef's schtick -- he often appears unable to control the videos accompanying his monologue. "All we talk about is politics. Today I want to talk about something softer," he says in one episode, as a plate of Jello pops up on the screen, to his exasperation. Later, he tells his audience that he wants to discuss the president's statements -- only to be confronted with a video of Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badei, whom some Brotherhood critics accuse of being the puppeteer guiding Morsi's actions. "Not him, damn you, not him!" Youssef complains.
But it is comedy with a purpose. On the Dec. 21 episode of "al-Bernameg," Youssef ran clips of Islamists delivering outrageous insults at him. "Bassem doesn't know how to clean himself in the bathroom," said one Islamist pundit. "I invite him to read al-Fatiha [the first chapter of the Quran] on the air -- if he reads it correctly, I will stop doing dawa [proselytization for Islam]."
As the episode closed, Youssef dropped the comedic act and hit back -- hard. "They look at us and don't see Christians and Muslims, no. They see non-believers, hypocrites, enemies of the religion and God," he said, before addressing his critics directly. "The equation is very simple. Just like you don't consider us Muslims, we don't consider you sheikhs or scholars." The approving roar from the studio audience was immense.
Youssef, who is a practicing Muslim, frames his stance as a defense of freedom of opinion against religious dogmatism. "It's about how you preserve religion and use it in spiritual leadership, instead of a tool of tyranny," he told FP. "That's our biggest problem. You can't just say 'vote for someone' or 'follow this person because that's the way of God.' When you do that, it doesn't really matter if you're a Muslim or Buddhist -- it's tyranny."
Youssef has a regular column for the Egyptian daily al-Shorouk, where he writes seriously about the problems facing Egypt -- and gleefully mocks his Islamist critics. Shortly after the April 24 Daily Show episode aired, the Brotherhood attempted to tar Youssef for his association with a Jewish comedian: Its official Twitter feed approvingly passed along an al-Jazeera clip featuring former CNN host Rick Sanchez, who referred to Stewart as "bigoted" and claimed that Jews control the media.
Youssef didn't back down. "These people talk about the tolerance of Islam with other religions, but at the same time they do not distinguish between Judaism as a religion and Zionism as a political stance," he wrote in al-Shorouk.
Youssef does more than defend his friends -- he stands up for a liberal lifestyle in a country veering toward conservatism. He doesn't apologize for drinking alcohol: In one episode, following a clip where an Islamist television personality accused the media of "suckling on the devil's breasts," Youssef sucks on a red baby bottle. "It could be a Bloody Mary, I don't know," he says. And he isn't squeamish about being interested in sex: Responding to claims that alcohol and condoms had been found at an anti-Morsi sit-in, he quips optimistically, "We'll be multiplying."
In our interview, Youssef played down his social liberalism. He wants to keep the focus on his argument that Islamists are using religion to bully Egyptians out of the public arena -- a unifying message that transcends the liberal and conservative divide. "[Egypt is] a conservative country, so yeah, [that] makes people who are more conservative get an advantage," he said. "But what we have now is not about religion; it's just about people who are being hot-headed and people who are being extreme."
It's a tough line to walk. So much of Egypt's political crisis comes down to a trust deficit: The opposition suspects the Brotherhood and its allies of plotting to dominate government institutions and transform Egypt from a republic into a hard-line Islamic state. The Islamists Youssef lampoons on his show accuse their rivals of being hard-drinking, drug-taking hedonists who have sex out of wedlock -- essentially, forces representing a culture foreign to Egypt. The level of duplicity is far from equal, but leaders from both sides prefer to downplay certain aspects of who they are.
Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.