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Egyptian police have issued an arrest warrant and questioned the country’s most popular TV satirist on charges of allegedly insulting Islam and the country’s president, Mohamed Morsi.
Bassem Youssef, known as Egypt’s answer to Jon Stewart, hosts a weekly topical satire program, al-Bernameg, watched by more than 30 million Egyptians. His bold critiques of the country’s government and its fundamentalist Islamists has been hailed by those inside and outside the country as a triumph for free speech in Egypt. Like Stewart, Youssef is an equal-opportunity lampoonist, freely mocking both the government and opposition parties.
Youssef turned himself into the authorities this weekend after a warrant was issued for his arrest. After three hours of questioned by Egypt’s top prosecutor, Youssef was released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,250).
On his show, Youssef often imitates Morsi’s distinctive style of speech and gestures. He regularly fact-checks the president’s public statements and plays video clips of Morsi’s speeches. In one popular episode shown earlier this year, he played a clip of Morsi, made in 2010 before he became president, calling Zionist “pigs.” The incident lead to a diplomatic incident with the U.S. administration and Morsi was forced to issued a statement distancing himself from the comments.
Youssef also regularly points out the contractions between the public statements made by prominent Islamic clerics and newscasters on Islamic TV stations and what he considers the true spirit of the religion.
Youssef has also made regular jokes about comments by Islamic clerics and presenters on Islamic TV stations, who he accuses of distorting the true meaning of Islam and using the religion as a “weapon and political tool.”
Youssef’s supporters turned out in force to protest his arrest, part of a wider crackdown on the media and free speech in Egypt. Over the past few months, state prosecutors have summoned numerous local journalists in for questioning on charges of criminal defamation. The day before Youssef’s arrest, several opposition activists were arrested. The government has also begun legal proceedings against five prominent activists for allegedly inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic political group that took power following Egypt’s elections last year.
Youssef himself made light of the proceedings, showing up to court in an oversized version of a graduation hat, a gentle poke at Morsi, who wore a similar style hat at a ceremony in Pakistan last month. In a tweet to his many online followers, he suggested he was arrested because the government’s lawyers and police officers wanted to be photographed with him. His tweets were later erased after a newscaster on Misr 25, a TV station associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, accused Youssef of mocking the investigation.
Youssef is the most prominent critic of President Morsi to be called in for questioning in recent weeks and his arrest follows waves of political unrest and demonstrations that have split the Egyptian populace. The government accuses anti-government activists of instigating violence and blames public critics such as Youssef with fanning the flames of unrest.
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