CAIRO — Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef is back on air and mocking the personality cult surrounding army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after his previous show was axed amid fears of growing intolerance for dissent.
Youssef, nicknamed "the Egyptian Jon Stewart" after the American comedian he emulates, shot to fame with his constant jibes at Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
But in November, his show was pulled by the private CBC channel after he poked fun at the wildly popular army chief who overthrow Morsi in July, and at his supporters.
In the premiere of his new show "The Program" on Friday night, aired by the private MBC Masr channel, Youssef gingerly broached the topic of Sisi, who is expected to win an upcoming presidential election.
"We're continuing. And we'll say whatever we want, and won't be scared of anyone," he said on the show, as the field marshal's silhouette appeared on screen.
"Some get upset when we mention some people, so it's best we don't bring them up... this isn't fear, it's respect," he said sarcastically.
As the broadcast progressed, Youssef kept trying to find ways to avoid mentioning Sisi, yet the field marshal still came up in a segment on cooking, and in a faux ad for "Sisi oil."
"Let's do songs," Youssef then said. "Foreign songs, not Arabic, which have nothing to do with us please!"
The show then cut to a Spanish song with the chorus "Si si, senor."
"Well, his popularity is huge," Youssef said. "You do know that in Spanish Sisi means "yes, yes."
But even indirect jokes annoyed some viewers who had gathered in a Cairo cafe to watch the show.
"The episode is funny, but I don't like the criticism of Sisi," said an accountant who gave his name as Sameh.
Another member of the audience at the cafe said the time was not right for such satire.
"The country needs control, not ridicule of its rulers," said Ahmed Mohamed, a merchant.
Yet many still smiled at Youssef's jokes, even reluctantly.
A young man who gave his name as Abdel Rahman said Youssef's jokes exposed "how the people are manufacturing a pharaoh."
Millions adore Sisi for overthrowing Morsi, a democratically elected Islamist whose sole year in power was widely seen as incompetent and increasingly autocratic.
Since Morsi's removal, the military and police have waged a deadly crackdown on his Islamist protesters that has killed more than 1,400 people in street clashes, and imprisoned thousands of Islamists.
Morsi supporters continue to stage protests that often end in clashes with police, and militants have killed scores of policemen and soldiers in attacks.
Dissent, even of the secular leaning variety, is less tolerated than ever, say critics of the military-installed government.
"Bassem has shown he can be defiant and cross red lines. But the question is whether he can keep it up," said Ali Mahrous, an engineer watching the show at the cafe.
Sisi has not yet said he will be a candidate in the presidential election due by mid-April, and the military has said he would make a formal announcement to the people if he decides to stand.
His aides have said privately that he is expected to resign from the military soon and put forward his nomination.
© AFP 2014