CAIRO – A private Egyptian TV station came under fire from public figures and fans of a widely popular satirist Saturday after it blocked the airing of his weekly show critical of the military and the country’s recent nationalist fervor.
Minutes before the program of Bassem Youssef, often compared to U.S. comedian Jon Stewart, was to air Friday, broadcaster CBC said it was suspending it because the satirist and his producer violated editorial policy.
The channel’s decision appeared to be a reaction to the sharp criticism Youssef came under by supporters of the army after his first episode following a four-month hiatus.
The station’s CEO said management had warned the satirist, asking him to take into consideration the angry response from the public after his first episode.
Mohammed el-Amin told the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya website that Youssef ignored the warning and violated the “journalist code of ethics,” forcing them to suspend the show. El-Amin said the show has not been canceled.
The program’s production company denied the claim, saying the episode included nothing that violated its professional and legal guidelines.
Amr Moussa, a former presidential candidate who currently chairs a panel tasked with amending Egypt’s constitution, urged CBC to reconsider a decision he said raised concerns over freedom of expression.
“Suspending Bassem Youssef’s program is an unwise decision that stirred resentment and concern by many about freedoms,” Moussa said in a statement emailed to reporters. “I urge CBC to reconsider its decision that hurt Egypt, like it hurt the station management.”
Egypt’s presidential adviser reacted quickly to the public outcry, distancing the government from the decision. Ahmed el-Muslemani told the Abu-Dhabi-based Sky News Arabia that the decision was “an internal matter.” He added that the president respected freedom of expression and opinion.
The program’s suspension also caused uproar among Youssef’s liberal fan base and a number of prominent public figures who said it undermined freedom of expression and stifled criticism.
Dozens of fans staged a rally near the theatre where Youssef records the show. “Government, why do you fear Youssef?” they chanted to drumbeats.
Some called for a boycott of the station. A new song entitled “Where is Bassem Youssef?” went viral on the internet hours after the decision.
The announcement by CBC came just minutes before Youssef’s show “El-Bernameg,” or “The Program” in Arabic, was to air Friday night.
Those who watched the pre-recorded program said the episode was largely critical of the station’s policies. Youssef mocked the station’s management for criticizing his first episode, when they issued a public statement advising him to respect national sentiment and “symbols of the Egyptian state.”
Youssef’s program has often stirred controversies, making him the target of many legal complaints. He has been investigated by authorities already for the first episode on charges of disrupting public order and insulting Egypt and military leaders.
Youssef’s popularity peaked during the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted in a popularly backed coup in July. Morsi was the target of weekly jokes mocking him and his Islamist allies for mixing religion and politics. Youssef was also briefly detained and released on bail under Morsi on accusations of insulting the president and Islam.
Since Morsi’s ouster, many rights groups have expressed concern about growing restrictions on freedom of expression as nationalist fervor made it difficult to criticize authorities. Authorities, installed by the military, shut down several Islamist channels on accusation of inciting violence and hatred.
There has also been an increase of militant attacks, at a time when state and pro-military media described Morsi supporters as seeking to destabilize the country.
In recent months, journalists have faced trials for filming military installations and publishing information that contradicted the state’s official discourse. At least four journalists died while covering protests by pro-Morsi demonstrators that descended into clashes.
In his first episode, Youssef was critical of the Brotherhood, but also of those he called “freedom lovers” who fail to tolerate others or any criticism.
Prominent blogger Mahmoud Salem told Associated Press Youssef’s suspension underscored an ongoing war between Egypt’s liberals and conservatives.
“This is simply a power play trying to eliminate the strongest and most influential liberal voice in Egypt,” Salem said
In their first reaction since the suspension, the production team of Youssef’s show said it regretted the “unilateral and surprising” decision of the station, apologizing to viewers because the show was not aired.
In a statement published on its Facebook page, the team said it won’t issue “emotional” reactions to the decision but regretted what it called an attempt by CBC “to smear its reputation and the reputation of its employees.” The station had accused Youssef of violating financial commitments.
Karim Atta, a 24-year-old student, said the suspension of Youssef’s program marked the return of authoritarianism in Egypt following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
“Today they shut down a TV show, tomorrow they will shut our mouths,” said Atta, who was protesting near Youssef’s theater.