CAIRO – Egypt’s state prosecutors ordered the arrest Saturday of a popular television satirist for allegedly insulting Islam and the country’s leader, in a move that government opponents say is aimed at silencing critics of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The arrest warrant for against Bassem Youssef, who has come to be known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, followed an order earlier this week by the country’s top prosecutor to arrest five prominent pro-democracy activists in what the opposition has characterized as a widening campaign against dissent.
The acceleration in legal action targeting protesters, activists and critics comes against a backdrop of continued unrest in the country. Political compromise between the well-organized Islamists in power and their vocal liberal and largely secular critics remains elusive, while the country’s economy is in near free fall, which has increasingly fueled popular frustration.
The opposition charges that Morsi, in office for nine months, and the Brotherhood have failed to tackle any of the nation’s most pressing problems and are trying to monopolize power, breaking their promises of inclusiveness. Morsi blames the country’s woes on nearly three decades of corruption under his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and accuses the opposition of stoking unrest for political gain.
The warrant against Youssef is the latest in a series of legal actions against the comedian, whose widely-watched weekly show, “ElBernameg” or “The Program,” has become a platform for lampooning the government, opposition, media and clerics. He has also used his program to fact-check politicians.
The fast-paced show has attracted a wide viewership, while at the same time earning itself its fair share of detractors. Youssef has been a frequent target of lawsuits, most of them brought by Islamist lawyers who have accused him of “corrupting morals” or violating “religious principles.”
Prosecutor Mohammed el-Sayed Khalifa told Al-Ahram online that he has heard 28 plaintiffs accusing Youssef of insulting Islam, mocking prayers, and “belittling” Morsi in the eyes of the world and his own people.
In one episode of the show, Youssef mocks former militants who are now part of the mainstream political scene in Egypt. At a recent rally, some former radicals who were imprisoned for taking part in the assassination of late President Anwar Sadat in 1981, accused the opposition of using violence at anti-Morsi protests.
In the program, Youssef ridicules an Islamist who said the militants had repented by fasting for three months for mistakenly killing others with Sadat.
“What a message,” Youssef says. “Anyone can form a group in the name of religion, assassinate in the name of religion, and then oops! Repent and fast for three months, and it will too pass in the name of religion.”
The comedian has faced several court cases in the past accusing him of insulting Morsi. One of Youssef’s attorneys, Gamal Eid, said however that this is the first time an arrest warrant has been issued for the comedian.
In a post on his official Twitter account, Youssef said he will hand himself in to the prosecutor’s office Sunday. He then added, with his typical sarcasm: “Unless they kindly send a police van today and save me the transportation hassle.”
Eid said the warrant fits into a widening campaign against government critics, media personalities, and activists, saying “the prosecution has become a tool to go after the regime’s opposition and intimidate it.”
A call to a top aide to the country’s chief prosecutor, Hassan Yassin, for comment went unanswered.
Egypt’s leading pro-democracy advocate and top opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei lamented the state of affairs in the country in a message posted on Saturday on his official Twitter account. “Pathetic efforts to smother dissent and intimidate media is a sign of a shaky regime and a bunker mentality,” he wrote.
The other recent arrest warrants for five high-profile activists were issued over allegations that they instigated violence last week near the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo, where nearly 200 people were injured in clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of the Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails.
Morsi responded by harshly criticizing his opponents, calling them hired thugs out to derail Egypt’s democracy. The Brotherhood also blamed privately-owned media for fanning the violence.
The criticism was followed by a two-day protest by dozens of Islamists outside the studios of TV networks critical of Morsi. The protesters pelted police and prevented some talk show hosts and guests from entering or leaving the complex.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called the escalation of anti-press “rhetoric” by Morsi and his supporters and the sit-in outside the media city were “deeply troubling.”
The series of prosecutions and arrest warrants come amid a legal challenge to the chief prosecutor, Talaat Abdullah, whose appointment by Morsi last year was declared void by a court ruling earlier this week.
On Saturday, Abdullah said he will appeal the court ruling, saying it is “in violation of the constitution and the law,” Egypt’s state news agency reported. The decision signals a protracted legal battle is likely to ensue, further confusing the legal scene in Egypt.
In the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, an Egyptian rights group said Saturday that police detained 13 people, including five lawyers, and accused them of assaulting police. The arrests inside the police station mark a rare instance in which lawyers face potential criminal charges.
The Haqanya Center for Rights said the 13 are accused of insulting security officials, attempting to free other detainees at the police station and illegal assembly.
The arrests prompted an angry response from lawyers at Cairo’s Bar Association, who demanded an apology from the police.
Those detained include prominent lawyer and pro-democracy activist Mahienour el-Masry. Several dozen Cairo protesters held a rally outside the chief prosecutor’s office, dismissing his orders as void, locking up the gates to his office with chains and demanding the release of the lawyers and activists.
Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, an attorney, said the lawyers and activists were beaten and assaulted at the station, where they had been since Friday to represent three opposition members reportedly detained and taken to the police by members of a political party affiliated with the Brotherhood.