An Egyptian political satirist was ordered released on bail hours after turning himself in for questioning over allegations he insulted Islam and President Mohamed Mursi.
Authorities issued an arrest warrant yesterday for Bassem Youssef, dubbed “Egypt’s Jon Stewart,” after complaints over comments he made about Islam and Mursi in his “Al Bernameg” television program in February. Bail was set at 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200), according to a prosecution statement.
“We are not the ones who insult religion,” Youssef said in a phone interview late yesterday on CBC television. “If there is anyone who has insulted religion, it is those who use Islam as a weapon for political reasons.”
The case has magnified accusations by Mursi’s critics that his regime seeks to limit rights, including of freedom of expression, and crack down on detractors. It will also provide ammunition for activists who accuse the prosecutor, appointed by Islamist-backed Mursi, of a double standard in dealing with complaints about the president’s opponents compared with those against his supporters.
“The lack of independence of the Egyptian judiciary, as is generally the case elsewhere in the Arab world, makes it a tool in the hands of those in power to pursue and punish their opponents,” Cairo-based human-rights lawyer Gamal Eid said by phone today.
“Bassem’s case is in big part a trial balloon,” Eid said. “If it goes through without a popular backlash despite his wide popularity, it will be easy to go after a long list of opponents.”
Hassan Yassin, a spokesman for the prosecutor general, didn’t answer calls seeking comment. Mursi has repeatedly said he respects the independence of the judiciary and is committed to freedoms, including of the press.
On his way to the building housing the prosecution office, Youssef was forced to squeeze through supporters chanting “Bassem, Bassem,” as they gathered in solidarity.
A medical doctor, Youssef shot to fame after the 2011 uprising that pushed Hosni Mubarak from power. Youssef’s program is similar in style to U.S. comedian Stewart’s “the Daily Show,” on which he has appeared.
The format of “Al Bernameg,” meaning “the Program,” combines political commentary and spoof interviews. It includes digs at Egypt’s politicians, members of the media and other public personalities, at times juxtaposing their current positions with contradictory statements they have made in the past. Videos of Mursi and other Islamists have featured prominently On Youssef’s show.
“Pathetic efforts to smother dissent and intimidate media” are “a sign of a shaky regime and a bunker mentality,” opposition leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter.
Talaat Ibrahim, the prosecutor general, will appeal a court ruling annulling his appointment by Mursi, the state-run news agency said yesterday. The legal battle over Ibrahim’s selection for the job is among disputes between Mursi and the courts, which Islamists have claimed are biased against them.