NAMIBIA – A Cairo court dismissed a lawsuit hoping to ban Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef’s popular TV show over the weekend — a move that may set a positive precedent for the comedian facing pressure for openly criticizing the government on his show, “El-Bernameg.” Judge Hassouna Tawfiq said the court dropped the complaint, filed by […]
NAMIBIA – A Cairo court dismissed a lawsuit hoping to ban Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef’s popular TV show over the weekend — a move that may set a positive precedent for the comedian facing pressure for openly criticizing the government on his show, “El-Bernameg.”
Judge Hassouna Tawfiq said the court dropped the complaint, filed by an Islamist lawyer, on grounds that the plaintiff did not have an interest in the case.
Comedians, politicians, and activists worldwide have been voicing support for Youssef after authorities issued him an arrest warrant last week. The arrest warrant issued against the man known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart is the latest in a string of attacks by the new government to restrict freedom of speech.
Youssef turned himself in for questioning a week ago Sunday for charges of allegedly insulting Islam and Egyptian President Morsi before being released on bail of $2,200. Youssef’s show, El-Bernameg, which critiques many aspects of Egyptian society, including fundamental clerics, and has more than 30 million viewers across the Middle East and is seen as a triumph for free speech in the post-Mubarak era.
Large crowds gathered to show their support as Youssef exited the court. Mohamed ElBaradei, the leader of Egypt’s main opposition coalition, tweeted “Pathetic efforts to smother dissent and intimidate media is a sign of a shaky regime and a bunker mentality.”
U.S. comedian Jon Stewart showed support for his Egyptian counterpart by devoting a significant portion of his show last Monday to addressing the allegations made against Youssef.
Stewart used a 10-minute segment of “The Daily Show” to outline the absurdity of Youssef’s arrest by combining a serious message into satirical statements, saying, “Silencing a comedian doesn’t qualify you to be president of Egypt … just president of NBC.”
Stewart appealed directly to the Egyptian president to stop restricting freedom of expression. “What are you worried about, Mr. President? The power of satire to overthrow the status quo?”
“And by the way, without Bassem and all those journalists and bloggers and brave protesters who took to Tahrir Square to voice dissent, you President Morsi would not be in a position to repress them,” he added.
Stewart even showed an interview clip of President Morsi himself saying that anyone who wishes to criticize him has the full right to do so and that public figures, including Bassem Youssef and Mohamed ElBaradei, would not face any harm for expressing their opinions.
Latest in a string of attacks on freedom of expression
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland expressed concern over the questioning of Bassem Youssef in a press statement last Monday. “This coupled with recent arrest warrants issued for other political activists is evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression,” Nuland said.
Two weeks ago, the prosecutor general also ordered the arrest of prominent Egyptian blogger, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, and four others on charges of allegedly instigating violence through comments posted on social media.
Abdel-Fattah refused to answer the prosecutor general’s questions and demanded that an investigative judge take over the case. The allegations stem from a clash between protesters and Muslim Brotherhood supporters in which both groups fought with knives and stones before police fired teargas on the crowd.
The Egyptian blogger said the accusations were based on comments sent to his account by others rather than his own posts. Abdel-Fattah was released after refusing to cooperate with prosecutors.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced concern last Tuesday that its Middle East consultant, Shaimaa Abulkhair, may soon be added to the list of journalists, bloggers, and critics jailed in Egypt.
According to CPJ, Abulkhair is facing an investigation regarding comments she made about the Bassem Youssef case.
“Abulkhair was doing her job in defending journalists and informing the public about investigation procedures,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “In pursuing this case, the government is escalating its attacks against journalists by targeting those who defend and protect critics.”
Numerous news reports said that lawyers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood filed complaints accusing Abulkhair and TV host Gaber al-Qarmouty of threatening national security and insulting the judiciary.
“We urge prosecutors to immediately drop the investigation of our consultant, Shaimaa Abulkhair, and our colleague, Gaber al-Qarmouty,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator.
Important cases left unaddressed
State Department spokesperson Nuland also reiterated the United States’ concern for the lack of justice for protesters who have been attacked by government officials under the Morsi regime.
“We’re also concerned that the Government of Egypt seems to be investigating these cases while it has been slow or inadequate in investigating attacks on demonstrators outside of the presidential palace in December 2012, other cases of extreme police brutality and illegally blocked entry of journalists to media cities,” said Nuland. “So there does not seem to be an evenhanded application of justice here.”
Nuland was referring to the detention and abuse of several dozen anti-government protesters in Cairo on Dec. 5-6, 2012. Witnesses and detainees told Human Rights Watch that at least 49 protesters opposed to President Mohamed Morsi were unlawfully held outside the Ettihadiya presidential palace gate, an area then occupied by the Muslim Brotherhood and overseen by riot police.
The Health Ministry reported that armed clashes resulted in the deaths of 10 people, and injuries to 748 more. Human Rights Watch urged Prosecutor General Tala’at Abdallah in December to examine responsibility for the deaths and injuries to protesters, as well as the failure of security forces to intervene to protect a peaceful anti-Morsi demonstration.
Following the detentions, President Morsi gave a speech in which he claimed evidence showed that the protesters were “hired thugs,” thereby suggesting that authorities were aware of the illegal detentions taking place.
“Instead of condemning illegal detentions and abuse right outside the presidential palace, President Morsi spoke out against the victims,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The prosecutor’s response in this high-profile case, namely his willingness to investigate violence by both sides and the role of state officials, is crucial for upholding the rule of law during this tense time.”
Despite these calls for a thorough investigation into the December detentions, protesters have seen little movement from the prosecutor general’s office; perhaps Abdullah is too busy questioning other Egyptian critics like Bassem Youssef.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Egypt’s High Court building at the end of March to demand the prosecutor general’s removal after the Cairo Court ruled that his appointment through a November presidential decree was illegal. Abdullah intends to appeal the Court’s decision.
While the prosecutor general awaits his fate, Abdullah continues to hunt down political critics and journalists in a series of mounting attacks on free speech by President Morsi’s government.