Can Social Media save Bassem Youssef? Some thoughts from SxSW.

On the fringes of the SxSW festival two years ago, I found myself at a TEDx event where, among other foolishness, a presenter was congratulating social media for its success in tearing down Arab dictatorships. It was an especially goofy form of hyperbole, considering the lowtech carnage that was taking place at that moment in Libya, where Facebook had proven useful, but not nearly as useful as air strikes, Kalashnikovs, and a generation brave and desperate enough to choose death over dictatorship.

At this year’s SxSW, then, when I sat in a nearly-full conference room at the Austin Convention Center to listen to a conversation between Bassem Youssef and YouTube’s former News Manager Olivia Ma, I was predisposed to be skeptical. The redemptive power of social media is easily overhyped, especially when the real world is still ruled by stuffed ballots and riot police and grubby backroom deals.

Youssef will be in a Cairo court tomorrow, not long after being the subject of an arrest warrant issued on charges of “insulting President Mohamed Morsi, denigrating Islam and spreading false news with the aim of disrupting public order.” It’s part of a process that began unfolding even as Youssef was at SxSW, and from which not even YouTube can spare him.

And yet.

Just consider Youssef’s instant empire. 85 million views on YouTube, a million subscribers there, two million followers on Facebook. He’s called “Egypt’s Jon Stewart”, not just because it’s an easy analogy, but also because Youssef modeled his first videos—shot in a closet at his home—on the Daily Show. By now, though, Al Bernameg (translation: The Program) has graduated from its home studio to a renovated theater in Cairo. It has risen beyond YouTube to become the most-watched television show in all of the Middle East. For the Arab world, it is now more important than the Daily Show is to Americans.

Youssef looked very much the part, even in Central Texas. Trim, handsome, wearing a dark blazer that could have come from Stewart’s coatrack, he was funny on- and off-script (“you don’t want to ask me how to make falafel?”, he asked, dismayed at the lack of cowboy hats in the room). He had been a cardiologist before he became a media star. Suave, political, near-perfect English. The crowd numbered no more than a hundred, but they had the nervous energy of people in a room with their idol. It was, at least, a high-protein group: beyond the media and tech attendees, there was a large contingent of young Arabs and Arab-Americans who spent much of their hour livetweeting on laptops. The pinging of Hootsuite filled the silences between questions.

In his conversation with Ma, which started off with a rather smooth video about Al Bernameg rags-to-ratings story (a forgivable slickness—his media company is currently looking for investors) Youssef was not shy about invoking the power of these followers.

“The show is very popular,” he said in response to a question about the private lawsuits that have been filed against him and his show. “Your greatest protection is not lawyers, it’s the people.” Applause. “I think it would be a very stupid move if they started targeting media people, it’s not just me,” he said. “I think we have come to a point where the government is actually much weaker than the people.”

But part of the threat to Al Bernameg may bleed beyond political conservatism and into social conservatism. Sarah Carr has an intelligent dissection of the ingrained hypocrisy of Egyptian society, which curses wildly at traffic but will not stand for immodest language on TV, or that discourages men from talking to unrelated females in the villages but remains silent about molestation in the cities. As Carr put it, the social underpinnings of Youssef’s persecution are as intriguing as the “dreary, Mubarakist attempts at censorship.”

Youssef acknowledged the line he has to walk in Egypt. “We are challenging so many taboos, but we can’t challenge all the taboos at once,” he said. “We can’t really use very graphic stuff. I can’t drop the f-bomb. I wrote it twice but it was beeped… Basically, we’re trying to be socially sensitive.”

“We are pushing the limits. Sometimes because it’s funnier. Sometimes because we are sitting there and saying, you know what, stop being hypocritical,” Youssef said. “We use that language in the community, and TV is a reflection of the community.”

Less clear is to what extent that community will unite to protect him. It is sad but not surprising that a government elected by so few, now proving so incapable of tackling Egypt’s real problems, would instead try to set fire to its critics. What has been far more revelatory in these past years is the will of the people to push back against those types of leaders, before and after the revolution. In Egypt, activism has not restricted itself to Liking Facebook pages. It has spilled to the streets when needed.

Youssef has already proven than YouTube can make him famous, can produce a bespoke theater and the funds for a professional show filmed before live audiences. But can social media now conjure up its next miracle, and save free speech?