CAIRO - Egyptian prosecutors questioned Egypt’s most popular television satirist on Sunday over allegations that he insulted President Mohamed Mursi, a case regarded by his critics as new proof of a crackdown on dissent.
Bassem Youssef turned himself in after the prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for him on Saturday. He was released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200).
Youssef rose to fame with a satirical online show after the uprising that swept autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011. His programme, which has been compared to the Daily Show of U.S. satirist Jon Stewart, is now broadcast on television.
The comedian is accused of insulting Islam and undermining the standing of Mursi, a Muslim Brotherhood politician freely elected last June. The prosecutor general issued the warrant after at least four legal complaints filed by Mursi supporters.
Arriving at the prosecutor general’s office, Youssef was wearing an oversized version of a graduation hat modelled on one donned by the president when he was awarded an honorary degree in Pakistan earlier in March.
He had sported the hat on his widely watched show, one of many satirical jabs at Mursi. Last year, he poked fun at Mursi’s repeated use of the word “love” by singing a love song to a heart-shaped pillow with the president’s face printed on it.
FEARS FOR FREE SPEECH
The investigation has raised fears for freedom of expression in the post-Mubarak Egypt. “It is an escalation in an attempt to restrict space for critical expression,” said Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch.
It is the most high-profile of a series of similar cases brought on accusations of insulting Mursi. Two dozen such cases were brought in the first 200 days of his rule - four times as many as during Mubarak’s 30 years in power, according to human rights lawyer Gamal Eid.
Prominent liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei said it was the kind of action only seen under “fascist regimes”. “It is the continuation of the failed and ugly moves to thwart the revolution,” he wrote on Twitter.
Mursi has hardened his tone in response to recent violent protests against him and the Brotherhood. After promising a week ago to take steps to protect the nation, Mursi vowed on Tuesday to “break the neck” of anyone who threw a petrol bomb.
The unrest is frustrating efforts to revive the economy.
Youssef was questioned after the prosecutor general issued five arrest warrants last week for prominent political activists accused of inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled Mursi to power in last year’s election.
The United States, which supplies $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt each year, expressed concern last week over reports that arrest warrants had been issued for political activists.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. government was also concerned this case was being investigated while others, including cases where protestors were attacked outside Mursi’s palace in December or cases of “extreme police brutality” had “not been appropriately investigated”.
Opposition figures say that the prosecutor, Talaat Ibrahim, is biased towards Mursi, who appointed him last November, and they want him removed from office.
A court ruled last week that Ibrahim’s appointment was illegal and that he must step down. Ibrahim, who denies any bias, plans to appeal against the ruling.