On Wednesday, May 31 in INTS 1128, the Middle East and Islamic Studies program hosted a screening of the film “Tickling Giants,” a harrowing documentary about Bassam Youssef’s (a former doctor that has been characterized as Egypt’s Jon Stewart) satirical show “Al Bernameg,” which translates from Arabic as “The Show.” The film, directed by Sara Taksler, chronicles Youssef’s life and the team of “Al Bernameg” as they experience Egypt’s unravel during the Arab Spring, receive death threats and earn the ire of current Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The film showing was preceded by a brief introduction from Muhammad Ali, the chair of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program.
The documentary began with a disclaimer, satirically stating that speaking against a dictator may result in a “loss of home and appetite” and also asked any dictators in the audience to leave. Tahrir Square, the sight of several Arab Spring protests in 2011 that gave way to the Egyptian Revolution, faded into view, showing images of protests and the government’s efforts to quash them. Youssef then began to narrate his life, explaining the reason why he became a doctor was to please his parents. He wanted to “make fun of the president” but the only problem was that he lived in Egypt.
The film centered heavily around the Egyptian media landscape during the time of the Arab Spring revolutions in which television anchors called protesters cowards, inciting hate among the population. Youssef argued that the media was supposed to be the voice of the people, not the voice of authority and that people were “being harmed just for speaking their minds.” After Mubarak resigned, Youssef decried that the media was still “total shit” and decided to start a satire show in his laundry room which received over 35,000 views on the first day. He then earned the title of “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” and was invited on Jon Stewart’s show to discuss the Egyptian media landscape and the suppression of satire in Egypt.
“Al Bernameg” was then picked up by the Egyptian television broadcaster CBC Egypt TV, which saw Youssef criticize the new president Mohamed Morsi after the resignation of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Morsi was then ousted in a military coup in which General El-Sisi took over. Youssef still showed no mercy with his jokes, evoking the anger of El-Sisi’s supporters. CBC took “Al Bernameg” off the air in 2013 and after three months, another station, MBC TV, started production on the show. After popular backlash, The Show was taken off the air again in February 2014. CBC then sued Youssef for breach of contract, ultimately resulting in a 100 million Egyptian pound ($5.5 million) judgement against Youssef who did not have enough money to pay. He and his family then fled to the U.S. to escape the political and social turmoil characteristic of Egypt at the time, ending in a state of hope for Egypt.
“Tickling Giants” was an excellent glimpse into the life of an Egyptian pundit, jailed and socially ostracized for speaking his mind. It follows in-depth the trials and tribulations of Youssef’s team and their struggle, even resulting in the arrest of his business partner’s father as a sign to stop being critical of the Egyptian regime. The film fiercely criticizes the insanity and restlessness of the establishment Egyptian media, who constantly praised El-Sisi, prompting Youssef to promise he would not “be another mouthpiece for the government.” Light notes of humor are interspersed throughout its near two-hour length, featuring mock credits at the end that attribute every aspect of its production to El-Sisi.
The screening was followed by a discussion with Gender and Sexuality Professor Sherine Hafez where students discussed Egyptian politics, asking why the army plays such a massive role in the country’s government and if journalism will ever be free in Egypt.
In a brief interview with the Highlander after the event, Hafez described it as a “very hopeful film despite the fact that it is saddening to see all the sacrifices during the revolution. It ends on a very hopeful note.” She went on to emphasize the importance of documentaries like “Tickling Giants,” noting that it “stop(s) people from forgetting and that’s what people need to do now in Egypt, they need to stop forgetting.”