Meet Bassem Youssef, the Jon Stewart of Egypt

The satirist sits down with ABC News' David Wright.

ByABC News
April 2, 2015, 11:00 AM

— -- Power Players

Bassem Youssef is too funny for his own good.

The Egyptian satirist, frequently dubbed “the Jon Stewart of Egypt,” is one of the most famous television stars the Arab world. His show "Al Bernameg” (“The Program”) is the Egyptian equivalent of “The Daily Show.”

Youssef's wildly popular program is now off the air, after the new Egyptian government led by military leader President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made it abundantly clear it would not take kindly any jokes made at the regime’s expense.

“The whole show was hilarious. People were laughing their asses off,” Youssef told “Power Players” during an interview in Queens, New York.  

"I think because we were too funny that's why we were banned," he said.

Even in exile here in the U.S., Youssef is careful not to criticize the government openly.

Youssef’s show started in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. Youssef, a cardiac surgeon by training, was treating the wounded in Tahrir Square when a friend encouraged him to create funny content on YouTube.  

They developed the YouTube show because they sensed Egypt, a country long ruled by military strongmen, was hungry for an irreverent take on politics.   

“I said I'm going do Jon Stewart on the Internet,” Youssef recalled. 

They started with just a video camera, a desk and a banner in Youssef’s laundry room, the only empty room in the house. But the homemade show quickly became a viral sensation.

Egyptian TV networks snapped the show up, eventually filming it in front of a live studio audience. At its height, “Al Bernameg” had 40 million viewers, an audience bigger than Jon Stewart's.

Youssef made merciless fun of then-President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the winners of Egypt’s first free and fair election.

“My show was allowed to be aired during the Muslim Brotherhood, because they weren't strong enough to stop it,” Youssef pointedly explained, the implication being that the new military government did indeed have the muscle to shut it down.

Jon Stewart was so impressed by the copycat Egyptian act he not only invited Youssef to appear on “The Daily Show,” he also appeared on “Al Bernameg.”

During his first appearance on "The Daily Show," Youssef acted the part of the wide-eyed ingénue, taking a selfie video as he walked out to greet Stewart. By his second appearance, a little more than a year later, a team of sunglass-wearing security guards advanced him -- poking fun at the idea that Youssef was now bigger than Stewart.

“This guy is not just an idol, he's a brother,” Youssef said of Stewart. “And, of course, he was commissioned by the CIA to train me ... to use satire to bring down the country,” he added in jest. (In fact, conspiracy theorists in Egypt have published that very accusation.)

For now, Youssef is on an extended stay here in the U.S. as a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He’s had offers to continue his show, but he refuses to do his old show in exile, aware that it would be perceived as treason.

For now, he’s biding his time a safe distance from the fray, waiting for the winds of the Arab Spring to once again catch his sails.

“Let's just say it's going to be a very windy spring,” Youssef said.

“I can go back to Egypt anytime I want,” Youssef insisted. “Can I leave Egypt anytime I want? I think I can. I think I can.”

Again, that careful tap dance.

For more of the interview with Youssef, and to learn about the documentary project “Comedy of Arabs” that he’s currently working on, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News' Brian Hartman, Richard Coolidge, Ali Dukakis, Tom Thornton, Eli Gamson, Evan Simon and Carlos Pulido contributed to this episode.