By Nick Gjorvad
It is rare to hear someone say that a court summons could be viewed in a positive light. However, Bassem Youssef’s recent interrogation by Egypt’s Prosecutor General’s Office may bring with it some benefits for his cause. Youssef’s satirical television show has criticised several political figures for quite some time, especially Islamists who have been a frequent target of his jokes. While individuals have filed complaints against Youssef before, it was not until last Saturday that the Prosecutor General actually summoned Youssef for questioning concerning allegations that he insulted President Morsi and Islam on his show. In doing so, the Egyptian government is helping Youssef’s voice to grow louder and reach a far larger audience than ever before.
The news of the investigation against Bassem Youssef has now permeated throughout the local, regional, and international media. Through these actions, the Egyptian government has placed an intense media spotlight on freedom of expression in Egypt, a topic which until now has not achieved consistent attention in the international media. News organisations in many parts of the world look for stories similar to this with tailor-made storylines akin to “Comedian arrested for making jokes about president”. Not only do these headlines attract significant attention, but also alarm many in the West and other parts of the world where freedom of speech is widely held as an inalienable human right.
For example, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart devoted the first segment of Monday’s program to a spirited defence of Bassem Youssef along with a pointed critique of the current Egyptian president. Additionally, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had Youssef as a guest on her show, where he answered the charges against him and defended the satire he uses in his program. Other mainstream news stations throughout the world have also reported on this story with the common theme being that the Egyptian government is silencing its critics with methods identical to the ousted Mubarak regime. Even though the Brotherhood-lead government is trying to avoid more bad publicity, this latest event further damages the Brotherhood’s narrative that it is bringing about a renaissance in Egypt.
To make matters worse for the Brotherhood, the United States is now voicing its concern about stifling freedom of expression in Egypt. This is an important development since the United States, for the most part, has remained relatively silent throughout Egypt’s transition to democracy. The US State Department not only expressed its concern that freedom of speech is being impeded, but that legal investigations are commonly used against political opponents, while Brotherhood allies are yet to be investigated for accusations leveled against them. This statement may be a sign that the United States is losing patience with a Brotherhood-led government that promised stability, but instead has overseen a tumultuous transition.
As mentioned in an article I wrote a month ago, it seems strange that the Egyptian government would devote such immense legal resources to a satirical television show. In that article, I pointed out that laws which criminalised ‘insults’ against government figures and institutions are not only problematic from a practical standpoint, but are also damaging to democracy. It’s a sentiment that Youssef expressed during his interview with Amanpour.
Prosecuting Youssef may also tell us a few things about the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its views toward his program. First, the Muslim Brotherhood may believe there is truth to Youssef’s criticisms and, in turn, wishes to use this prosecution as a means to silence him. Second, the Brotherhood and its allies cannot accept criticism of their performance, which demonstrates a type of political immaturity that is harmful to a nation going through a democratic transition.
As this issue continues to play out in the media, it is beginning to look as though these events will benefit Bassem Youssef, his program, and his cause. First, it is a good bet that Youssef’s program will get a healthy boost in audience numbers both locally and internationally. As Youssef himself promised, his show will now take an even closer look at Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, if Youssef’s critiques of the current government really do reflect a telling political truth about the leaders of Egypt, then he can convince more people to strenuously oppose and place pressure on the Morsi government.
I cannot help but think that Bassem Youssef hoped for this type of response from the Egyptian government all along, since a reaction such as this during times of political tension was sure to gain significant media coverage. As the political situation in Egypt has continually worsened, Youssef is gaining more attention and a wider audience than ever before and although the promises of the Egyptian Revolution are quickly fading, Youssef’s star is growing ever brighter and his message more relevant than ever before. Widespread publicity will support Youssef’s cause, and the prosecution has only helped with this.