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When Egypt’s satirists poke fun, public prosecutor hits back

The case of Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist accused of insulting Islam and the president, has exposed what seems to be a series of politically motivated investigations into government critics.

Egypt is escalating a series of cases against government critics, and pursuing investigations against journalists, comedians, and activists in what the president’s critics say is a bid to silence them. 

Today prosecutors questioned Ali Qandil, a standup comedian who appeared on the popular political satire show hosted by Egyptian Bassem Youssef. He’s accused of insulting Islam during his 20-minute appearance on Mr. Youssef’s show, Al Bernameg, or The Program. 

Mr. Youssef himself was interrogated on March 31, over accusations of insulting Islam as well as the president. A new case has been filed against him as well. And now Shaimaa Abu El Khir, a journalist who works with The Committee to Protect Journalists, faces accusations of threatening national security and insulting the judiciary, as does the television host who interviewed her, after commenting critically on the case against Youssef.

These cases come on the heels of prosecution of many other local journalists and prominent opposition activists in what critics of the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president, Mohamed Morsi, say seems to be a politically motivated campaign against the president’s critics by his handpicked public prosecutor.

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Activists say the incidents are further eroding trust in the public prosecutor’s position, already low because Morsi appointed the prosecutor himself in a controversial November decree bypassing the constitutional process.

“We have a big problem with the public prosecutor. He’s not independent,” says Ahmed Ezzat, a lawyer who is an activist for freedom of expression and attended Qandil’s questioning today. He says the types of cases he is pursuing show where his priorities lie. Complaints of police torture and violence committed by the president’s supporters do not seem to be pursued with the same vigor as cases against the president’s opponents. 

The wrong priorities 

The US has been criticized by many Egyptians for not coming down hard enough on the new government for human and civil rights violations, but this string of events seems to have generated concern. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry said yesterday that the US has “real concerns about the direction that Egypt appears to be moving in,” mentioning “recent arrests” – likely a reference to Youssef’s case. Earlier this week State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nulandcalled Youssef’s interrogation part of a “disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of speech” in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party struck back stridently, calling the remarks a “blatant interference in Egypt’s internal affairs” that “raise major question marks about the US administration’s position and discourse.” The party said the “main” complaint against Youssef was defaming Islam, not insulting Morsi.

Morsi’s administration released a statement distancing itself from the case against Youssef, saying the prosecutor was acting independently.

“The Presidency reiterates the importance of freedom of expression and fully respects press freedom. All citizens are free to express themselves without the restrictions that prevailed in the era of the previous regime,” said the statement.

Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, says it is disingenuous to cast this as business as usual. “It’s false to make the argument that this is just an organic application of the law and there’s no political decision made in it,” she says.

In accordance with the Egyptian legal system, private citizens brought the complaints against Youssef, Qandil, and Ms. Abu El Khir. In such cases, the prosecutor must look into the complaints and decide whether there is evidence to open an investigation or not. He is not obligated to open one. But by referring Abu El Khir’s and Youssef’s cases to state security prosecutors, he has significantly escalated them.

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When the prosecutor has “piles and piles” of complaints on police torture and extrajudicial killings and chooses to prioritize cases against journalists and satirists, she says, “it sends a message.”

‘Joke by joke’ interrogation

Rights activists have long criticized laws criminalizing the defamation of religion and insulting the president, arguing they limit freedom of expression and are used to repress minorities or silence those with unpopular views. 

Youssef, often called the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” in the Western press, hosts a popular political satire show here modeled on The Daily Show. Originally a heart surgeon, he volunteered in makeshift medical centers during the protests that brought down former President Hosni Mubarakin 2011 and soon after started producing his own show on YouTube. Its popularity earned the show a spot on a private television network.

Youssef often mocks Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party on Al Bernameg. When he arrived for his interrogation on March 31, he wore an oversized hat he had worn on the program, mocking a hat Morsi wore while receiving an honorary degree in Pakistan. He said in an interview with CNN‘s Christiane Amanpour that the prosecutors reviewed the shows in which he had supposedly insulted the president or Islam, questioning him “joke by joke.” He compared the case to a modern-day Inquisition. 

That evening, Abu el Khir, the journalist with the Committee to Protect Journalists, called in to a television show called in to host Gaber el Qarmouty’s political talk show to discuss Youssef’s interrogation, which she attended. 

She said the questioning had been fair, but she also said it never should have happened in the first place. 

“Continuing the investigation means there is a need to silence Bassem,” Ms. Abu el Khir says, repeating what she said on the air. “There is a need to silence all opposition media people, from speaking loudly, from speaking in opposition to the regime.”

The next morning, April 1, there was a case filed against her, too — for threatening national security and insulting the judiciary. Later that day, acting in what Abu el Khir describes as uncharacteristic haste, the case was referred to a state security prosecutor.