In light of the motivation that many of us felt as we humbly watched the 2011 developments out of Tahrir Square, I have had the privilege of working on developmental initiatives in Egypt to increase the levels of civic engagement, social participation, and global education among its youth. As a proud American of Egyptian descent, I genuinely believe in the power of a free Egypt -- one in which opinions can be strongly expressed -- and where there is room to sharply criticize those opinions. So I was deeply troubled by a recent HuffPost blog entitled "Egypt's Jon Stewart Is No Hero" in which the author uses bait-and-switch argumentation to condemn comedian Bassem Youssef for expressing his strong skepticism of the status quo.
Among the author's more ominous statements: "Progress now requires action, not satire."
To the contrary, satire is very much a part of the human story of progress. Some of the most compelling progress found throughout our history has been ushered along by satire, as it is far more difficult for governments to justify attacks on menacing but ever-popular "court jesters." This is the most evident reason for which Youssef may pose a grave threat to those currently in power. Figures like Youssef are instrumental in moving government officials into a forced sense of awareness of the most urgent social concerns. They are needed for democracy to work effectively, and rather than attack Youssef with legal challenges on his satire, the Muslim Brotherhood should engage in the building of a true democracy by promoting their own satirists and public figures who can address their opponents' viewpoints. Cornering Youssef into legal troubles is a cop-out, and only portrays weakness, not strength.
Despite the author's contentions, when one is in power in a democracy, one must be prepared to be criticized, and sometimes brutally so. I am certain that had Ahmed Shafik, President Mohammed Morsi's National Democractic Party opponent, won the presidential election, there would have been numerous figures addressing his similarities to Mubarak -- in both protest and satire -- and it would have been their democratic right. Rather than silence opposition, then, Morsi and his administration should listen in with genuine ears. They are missing the opportunity to do so. An elected president is a public servant, and while in a fledgling democracy like Egypt there may indeed be a public need for a reasonable level of patience, the onus is on Morsi to serve even those who did not vote for him -- not on those whom he now serves to favorably alter their views on the Administration's actions.
While I do not agree with every point that Youssef makes, it is increasingly evident that far from being a criminal, he is simply an inconvenient reality for the current leadership -- and he has indeed become a hero to many on the street. If one listens to his show in Arabic, Youssef addresses acute social issues that those with soaring challenges still lack sufficient access to express. He should not be cornered into forgoing the discussion of problems that he did not cause. Those who dislike him, even virulently, should still provide him space to do what he does, and if they are intimidated by his following, then they should act to create their own heroes. With such an approach, a genuine coexistence of ideas in a different Egypt might one day become possible, if that is the society's intention post-Arab Spring.
Democracy is difficult and it requires unrelenting work, not accusations of blasphemy, intimidation, and imprisonment at the moment at which another disagrees, then fails to stop disagreeing. That may be the easy way out of social argumentation, but it is also a sure way to empower already inflamed and bitter voices -- and it is a sure way to make living martyrs out of those whom one opposes.