The Egyptian Twittersphere fell silent on Friday night, April 5, as the country tuned into the first episode of al-Bernamig to be aired since its host, Bassem Youssef, was summoned for questioning before the public prosecutor on Sunday, March 31.
Youssef faces charges of insulting the president, insulting Islam, broadcasting false news, and a reported fourth charge that has not yet been made public. He was released on 15,000 LE bail ($2,200) – but not before arriving at the court wearing an oversized replica of the hat President Mohamed Morsi wore to accept an honorary degree from a Pakistani university weeks before.
As al-Bernamig returned to the airwaves after Youssef’s brief detention and interrogation, viewers wondered how he would respond to these threats against free speech. While it is not the first time such charges have been brought against Youssef (a similar case was raised in early January), this time the public prosecutor pursued the case with greater enthusiasm.
To the delight of his fans and for the betterment of Egypt’s media scene, Youssef seems undeterred by the charges brought against him. The April 5 episode was as clever and critical as ever, as Youssef took aim at the media’s treatment of Egypt’s relationship with the small, oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar.
At the episode’s climax, Youssef stood to conduct an orchestra and choir in a rendition of “Qatari Habibi,” or “My Darling Qatar.” The song is a parody of the 1960 Egyptian nationalist ballad “The Great Homeland,” written by Ahmed Shafiq Kamel and composed by the renowned Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
The original state-funded performance of “The Great Homeland” was produced at the height of Nasserist Arab nationalism, and features an appropriately pan-Arab cast of stars, including Egyptian singers Abdel-Halim Hafez and Shadia, and Lebanese singer Sabah. Featuring a civilian chorus marching in goose-step with arms extended, the song is a product of a military and socialist aesthetic at its height.
The Great Homeland, 1960
The al-Bernamig version of “The Great Homeland” satirizes increasingly common fears of Gulf investment amidst Egypt’s deep economic crisis. Qatar has given Egypt $5 billion since the start of the January 25 Revolution, including a $1 billion grant and $4 billion in deposits at the Central Bank of Egypt.
In September 2012, Qatar promised to invest $18 billion in the country over the coming five years. In short, Qatar has been Egypt’s primary lender over the past two years, as negotiations with the IMF have stalled and promises from the United States of $1 billion in aid have not materialized.
Against this backdrop, outlandish rumors have circulated of Qatar’s intention to rent the pyramids or buy the Suez Canal. During the April 5 episode, Youssef chastised the Egyptian media for stretching fears of Qatari financial influence out of proportion.
“My Darling Qatar” is a brilliant shot by shot parody of the original song, complete with a singer mimicking Abdel-Halim Hafez down to his iconic hand gestures and head sweeps. Even the name of the song itself, “Qatari Habibi,” mimics “Watani Habibi,” (“My Darling Homeland”) an alternative title of the original song.
My Darling Qatar, from al-Bernamig, 2013
A translation of Youssef’s “Qatari Habibi” follows:
My Qatar, my sweetheart, the little brother,
Day after day, his funds grow larger.
Fill his life,
My Qatar spends and shows off his wealth,
My Qatar, my Qatar!
My Qatar, your money fills my land.
Give me more, my Qatar,
And I am still content!
Is this what we’re reduced to –
We’re begging from abroad,
Since we went bankrupt during the revolution.
You are great! (Great! Great!)
Much greater than the entire Gulf,
Greater than all of history,
Oh, my Qatar!
[to Egypt] My nation, oh paradise, people envy her.
Tomorrow she will be sold in the shop windows.
Your [Suez] Canal was your bounty,
You’ll insult Qatar with the lease!
Let’s sell to a Qatari and partake of his benevolence!
Sell him the pyramids and build two more!
We are a nation; we’ve always been good,
Pay the fortune-teller her fees, and take whatever you can.
We will sacrifice everything for you, Qatari sweetheart!
My beautiful, darling Qatar, who fills our pockets,
What sweet misfortune, which covers our flag,
Oh sweet renaissance, crushing our people,
How beautiful, the sweetest betrayal of our life.
Here is what we took from the [Muslim] Brotherhood:
Selling Egypt piece-by-piece and in bulk,
In Rod al-Farg, Dokki, and Shobra.
The happiness of the people, and all of their gratitude;
For you, the gratitude of the entire Egyptian people.
Like all nationalistic ballads, it is a love song at heart, complete with flattery and chastisement. The line “Oh sweet renaissance, crushing our people / How beautiful, the sweetest betrayal of our life” is a direct shot at Morsi’s electoral program, the Nahda (Renaissance) Project.
The song is a lyrical parody as well. The original line referring to Egypt reads “My dear homeland, the greatest homeland/ Day after day, her glories grow larger.” Youssef replaces it with, “My Qatar, my sweetheart, the little brother / Day after day, his funds grow larger.”
By parodying the 1960s anthem produced during the height of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, Youssef’s song not only makes light of current fears that Egypt’s leaders are selling the country. It also evokes a bygone era when Egypt was a regional leader – in stark comparison to the present. Finally, the song effectively turns a legacy of state-produced and funded nationalism on its head.
It is a well-timed message. The day after the episode aired, Egypt’s central bank governor Hisham Ramez left Cairo for a two-day trip to Qatar.
While Youssef believes that fears about Qatari influence are overblown, he also took aim at those managing the country’s financial affairs. In a departure from his usual fast-paced humor, Youssef turned to the camera after the song and spoke with sincerity:
One last thing on the subject of Qatar, and Qatar buying us, and all that empty talk. Look, where is the problem exactly? Is it that we are taking money from Qatar, or that we are taking money at all? No one is going to give us money without wanting something in return.
The problem isn’t with who is buying [from Egypt] – the problem is with who is selling. We don’t have a problem with Qatar, on the contrary: Qataris are a great people, and Qatar is a country that knows where its interests lie. The problem is with us.
The problem is that as soon as someone takes control of the country [Egypt], he reaches out his hand to ask for something – abroad, domestically… and when he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, it looks like in the end, he’ll turn to collecting bail.
The last line is a clear reference to the 15,000 LE Youssef paid in bail money to the Egyptian state just last week. Instead of properly tending to the country’s financial affairs and addressing the looming economic crisis, the current government is too busy arresting opposition activists, bloggers, journalists, and even comedians on trumped up charges.
“Freedom doesn’t come for free – so he paid them cash!” the announcer intones at the beginning of the show, using the English word, “cash” to drive the point home. Youssef spends the last segment of his show in a heartfelt address, asking viewers to turn their attention to a number of activists and journalists who have also been arrested by the current regime. He reminds viewers that the charges brought against him are enshrined in the law and that activists are being persecuted legally. Most importantly, he reminds viewers just because it is legal for the state to detain and arrest citizens, does not make it just.
The charges against Youssef keep accumulating. On April 6, he tweeted that a new legal complaint had been raised, “demanding that he reveal his relationship with the United States and Israel, as well as accusing him of corrupting societal values through sarcasm and humor.”
In light of the charges brought against him this past week, Bassem Youssef began his April 5 episode promising not to make fun of the president. While he refrained from engaging in his usual satirical treatment of Morsi, he did not reign in his targeted political commentary.
In his first episode since appearing before the public prosecutor, Youssef proves that his sincerity as well as his sarcasm are equally on-point, and equally politically salient.