CAIRO — An Egyptian court held its first hearing Wednesday to investigate Bassem Youssef, a comedian who stars in a satirical news program modeled after Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” on suspicion of insulting the state, the military and the revolution in a show last Friday that criticized the military’s ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.
That the military-guided government is going after Youssef — who’s just as popular as his American counterpart — was, for many, the latest example of a nation seeking to rollback gains in freedom of expression after the 2011 uprising. For others, Youssef had crossed the line of what constitutes acceptable commentary about Egypt and its transitional government.
Youssef’s frequent confrontations with Egypt’s legal system have become a barometer of where freedom of expression stands in this restive nation. Even as it announced its investigation, the government sought to frame its position as a defender of the uprising that led to the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak and kindled hopes of revolutionary change. On state radio Wednesday, government newscasters portrayed Youssef as the latest threat to the state. After announcing the news, a frequently played slogan came over the radio: “Egypt is on the road to democracy.”
Youssef’s show, “El-Bernameg,” had been on hiatus since July, when the military ousted Morsi. In his return show Friday, Youssef mocked supporters of de facto leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, those who worship him as Egypt’s new great leader and the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency.
The show also featured an interview with a pastry shop owner who now is selling sweets covered with pictures of el-Sissi. In one skit, a woman mockingly called into a show seeking advice about her love affair with a soldier who saved her from her abusive husband, a reference to el-Sissi as the savior and Morsi as the abuser. Those features were among the bases for the investigation.
Youssef is accused of disturbing the peace, harming public interests, creating chaos, sowing sedition and threatening social security and peace, according to a statement that announced the investigation Monday.
During Wednesday’s court hearing, the judge heard the state’s complaint from the Islamic youth group that brought the charges. The group, which is presumed to support Morsi, charged that Youssef had insulted the former president and the current government.
“Youssef deliberately insulted Egypt and distorted its image before the world and public opinion. He portrayed Egyptians as a dallying woman who betrayed her husband with military men,” said Abdel Bary Khalil, a member of Shuban al-Muslameen, or Muslim Youth Association. “He also insisted on describing the June 30 revolution as a military coup which threatens national security and incites chaos. He also defamed Sissi.”
The reaction to Friday’s show was just as polarized as the nation. It drew the ire of those who support el-Sissi, in what’s become a pro-military fervor sweeping Egypt. Many hope that el-Sissi will run in still-unannounced presidential elections next year. Before the final credits rolled, Egyptians took to Facebook to attack Youssef as insulting the state. In the days since, Youssef’s supporters and detractors have clashed in front of his downtown studio, where just four months ago, Stewart visited in support of Youssef.
Youssef himself predicted such a backlash. In the final 15 minutes of the hourlong program, he said he knew he’d come under attack, and he stressed that his program doesn’t advocate a side but seeks to protect free speech.
“Despite all the messes that have happened, there is hope. The revolution continues. No one can stifle your view … surely after we got rid of those who call us heretics we won’t see those who call us traitors,” he said.
In a column published Tuesday, titled “Egypt Shifts to the Right,” Youssef wrote that those who supported change now oppose it when such change goes against their interests.
“Those who defend liberalism and secularism say they are opposed to religious fanaticism and endorse freedom of opinion. However, when it suits them, they use Quranic verses and Hadiths (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) to justify attacks against their enemies, using the same accusations as religious movements,” Youssef wrote.
The court didn’t announce the next hearing date.