Bassem Youssef and “Liberalism”

Bassem Youssef and “Liberalism”

Hazem Saghieh |

With some generosity and exaggeration, historian Albert Hourani used the term the “liberal age” to describe the time between the British occupation of Egypt in 1882 and the end of the 1930s.


The reasons that have justified accusing Hourani of generosity and exaggeration are many. For instance, some lamented those “liberals’” lack of a strong middle class from which they emanate, and which they represent and operate within. Others focused on our historical experience’s lack of accumulation of political traditions and ideas that liberalism can only rise through. There were also several voices that stressed the difficulties of liberalism, if not its outright impossibility, in light of the lack of a religious reform that goes far beyond the modest attempts of Sheikh Jamaluddin Afghani and Sheikh Mohammed Abduh. One may say, at least in the countries with weaker national fabric, that modern ideological tendencies, including liberalism, socialism, and others, cannot take off before the issue of the nation-state is settled, and that of consensus over national identity. Otherwise, these ideologies are no more than the formulation of minority-based sensitivities, sometimes imbued with individual moods.


No matter what the arguments and interpretations are, the Lebanese had already called the late politician Raymond Edde a “liberal.” But the two calls Edde was famous for were insisting on carrying out capital punishment and maintaining banking secrecy! In Iraq, the two late politicians Kamel Jaderji and Mohammad Hadid tried to integrate the traditions of social democracy with the liberal tradition, but both men assumed ministerial posts in the military administrations of Bakr Sodqi in the 1930s and Abdul Karim Kassem in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And in Syria in 1958, the urban merchant class – the supposed incubator of liberal consciousness – signed both its death warrant and that of its country by accepting unity with Egypt under the military administration of Gamal Abdel Nasser.


Without going into details about the experiences and half experiences that all betray the emaciation of “Arab liberalism,” and even its weak democratic credentials, the “liberal” attitudes vis-à-vis the recent military coup in Egypt were incontrovertible proof of the above.


With every day that passes, with voices rising to glorify General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, it appears clearer and clearer how the exclusionary mentality, which is inconsistent with liberalism by definition, is a common trait between the Muslim Brotherhood and their “liberal” opponents. What is needed, in both cases, is “salvation” brought about by a strong and inspiring leader, who could be a cleric linked to the realm of the sacred, or an officer whose shoulders are adorned by stars.


Faced with this lousy reality, the case of Bassem Youssef seems most interesting. After the Egyptian satirist made tons of criticisms of Mohamed Morsi, he made a smaller number and less potent criticisms of Sisi (and by extension the Interim President Adli Mansour). This is how Youssef, even if at a minimal level, maintained what a liberal attitude should be like. But the Egyptian Prosecutor General started an inquiry pursuant to a complaint filed against Youssef, but more importantly, the “masses” and the “people” expressed their condemnation of and wrath over the criticism against Sisi.


Would it be an exaggeration to say that liberalism’s share among the Arabs does not go much beyond the phenomenon of Bassem Youssef, then, and that its dominant form remains until today a satirical program?


Such a conclusion allows Youssef to be proud, as much as it prompts our liberalism to be ashamed!