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‘Jon Stewart of Egypt’ eyes next project after Harvard stint

Bassem Youssef, who has been dubbed the Jon Stewart of Egypt for his biting political satire, participates in a discussion of satire and free speech Friday, May 1, 2015, in Boston. A resident fellow for the spring semester at Harvard University's Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government Youssef ended his popular Egyptian political satire show Al-Bernameg about a year ago, citing a fear for his and his family's safety. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

BOSTON (AP) — Bassem Youssef, the man dubbed the “Jon Stewart of Egypt,” is eyeing new projects after teaching students at Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government how satire can disrupt the social and political order.

It’s a topic the 41-year-old heart surgeon-turned-satirist knows well. Youssef rocketed to fame after the 2011 Arab Spring revolution as host of a wildly popular Egyptian political satire show.

“El Bernameg” — Arabic for “The Program” — was canceled in June 2014 amid mounting pressure by the military-led government to crack down on dissenting voices. Youssef and his family, concerned for their safety, left the country months later.

At a recent appearance at a downtown Boston law firm, Youssef said he hasn’t ruled out an eventual return to television. He’s had plenty of offers, he says, but none caught his interest.

“The offers would be like, ‘Forget politics. Why don’t you do a game show?'” Youssef says. “That we couldn’t do. We can’t risk sacrificing the brand.”

He admits to holding out some hope for a U.S. gig.

“Maybe I’ll stay in the States. Maybe I’ll have an offer,” Youssef says. “But I don’t know what the American public would feel about an Arab with thick accent talking about American politics.”

While his tone was mostly casual and breezy, he firmly pushed back when an audience member suggested he had given up on his country.

“It’s very easy to say I’m quitting, but if you put yourself in my shoes, I would like to see how you react,” Youssef said. “Every time I would speak in public, they would arrest someone at home. Continuing to speak was being selfish.”

During his show’s three-year run, Youssef was frequently at odds with authorities. Following the 2011 revolution, he was briefly arrested after being accused of insulting then-President Mohammed Morsi.

After a military regime ousted Morsi, Youssef says, he was even accused of being recruited to spy for foreign powers. As the pressure mounted, his show was suspended and then canceled.

For now, Youssef says, he is focused on giving young Arab talents the same shot he had at stardom.

His latest venture is “Tube Star Network,” a Dubai-based project that helps aspiring Arab talents develop their own Internet programs. Hopefully, he says, some will make the same leap to broadcast television as he did.

“There’s a huge vacuum in the Middle East for original content,” Youssef said. “This vacuum, right now, is being filled with extremists, with military propaganda, or filled with apathy.”

Youssef, who is also encouraging donations toward an independent documentary about his show, is a prime example of what timing and the right message can do.

As he told the Boston audience, he was well on his way toward his lifelong dream to be a heart surgeon in America when a wave of revolutions toppled authoritarian regimes across the Arab World in 2011.

Dissatisfied by mainstream news coverage at the time, Youssef and his team started uploading short videos skewering Egyptian media, politics and culture in the vein of “The Daily Show.”

The YouTube clips developed a following and eventually were picked up by an Egyptian television network, where it became one of the nation’s most popular shows ever.

Youssef also gained international fame, being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2013 and developing a kinship with the real Jon Stewart.

“The Daily Show” host appeared on Youssef’s show and Youssef, in turn, has done guest spots as a “senior Middle East correspondent” for the Comedy Central show, from which Stewart is stepping down in August.

Reflecting on the Arab Spring, Youssef believes the uprisings set in motion developments that will eventually bring lasting change to the region.

“If it’s defeated, I don’t think I will be defeated for very long,” Youssef told the Boston audience. “It was stupid for us to think we’d have a revolution in 18 days. It will take time. Revolution isn’t an event. It’s a process.”

Then, as now, he believes young people, who comprise significant majorities in many Arab countries, hold the key.

“They are asking questions that were not asked before. They are challenging religious authorities, political authorities and military authorities,” Youssef says. “It has started. The ways that the establishment used to keep those young people down for many decades are not working anymore.”

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