Egyptian Satirist Arrest a Free-Speech Concern, U.S. Says

The arrest of a satirist who’s been called “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” on charges of insulting Islam and the country’s president raises concern that Egypt’s government is restricting basic liberties, the U.S. State Department said.

“There does not seem to be an evenhanded application of justice here,” spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday at the department’s daily briefing in Washington. She said the government seems to be pursuing such cases “while it has been slow or inadequate in investigating attacks” on demonstrators and journalists.

Bassem Youssef turned himself in March 30 after prosecutors issued an arrest warrant over comments the comedian made in his “Al Bernameg” television program in February. He was released on 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200) bail hours later.

Youssef’s arrest is “evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on freedom of expression” in Egypt, Nuland said.

The case has magnified accusations by critics of Islamist-backed President Mohamed Mursi 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 Mursi, of a double standard in dealing with complaints about the president’s opponents compared with those against his supporters.

“We are not the ones who insult religion,” Youssef said in a phone interview on CBC television. “If there is anyone who has insulted religion, it is those who use Islam as a weapon for political reasons.”

‘Daily Show’

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 been featured prominently on Youssef’s show.

“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 in an interview.

“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.”

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