Egypt satirist questioned for insulting President Mursi

Last Updated: Sun, Mar 31, 2013 17:17 hrs

A popular television satirist known as Egypt's Jon Stewart was released on bail Sunday after nearly five hours of interrogation over allegations that he broke the law by insulting Islam and the country's leader.

Bassem Youssef is the most prominent critic of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to be called in for questioning in recent weeks in what the opposition says is a campaign to intimidate critics. Arrest warrants have been issued for five prominent anti-government activists accused of instigating violence.

A prosecution official said Youssef was to pay a bail of 15,000 LE ($2,200), pending the completion of an investigation.

Youssef tweeted that the bail is for three separate cases. The date for an expected fourth interrogation has not been set, he added.

Rights lawyer Gamal Eid said the release on bail means "all options are open."

"The prosecution could continue investigation, put the case aside or send it to trial," Eid said.

Youssef, the host of the weekly show "ElBernameg," or "The Program," is known for his skits lampooning Morsi and Egypt's newly empowered Islamist political class, but he also mocks the opposition and the media.

Several dozen supporters gathered outside the public prosecutor's office as he presented himself for questioning a day after a warrant for his arrest was first reported in the media.

The media also intently followed the comedian's interrogation. He first tweeted a series of quips from the prosecutor's office. "They asked me the color of my eyes. Really," one read.

A news broadcaster at a TV station affiliated with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group, Misr 25, said he was "mocking" the investigation, and his tweets later were erased and he wrote that some reports from inside the interrogation room were "incorrect."

The fast-paced show has attracted a wide viewership, while at the same time earning itself its fair share of detractors. Youssef has been a frequent target of lawsuits, most of them brought by Islamist lawyers who have accused him of "corrupting morals" or violating "religious principles."

Prosecutor Mohammed el-Sayed Khalifa was quoted on the website of the state-owned Al-Ahram daily that he has heard 28 plaintiffs accusing Youssef of insulting Islam, mocking prayers, and "belittling" Morsi in the eyes of the world and his own people.

Youssef frequently imitates Morsi's speeches and gestures. He has fact-checked the president, and in one particularly popular episode earlier this year, Youssef played video clips showing remarks by Morsi, made in 2010 before he became president, where the Muslim Brotherhood veteran called Zionists "pigs."

The remarks caused a brief diplomatic tiff with the U.S. administration, and Morsi had to issue a statement to defuse the flap.

In his last episode this week, Youssef thanked Morsi for providing him with so much material.

Youssef has also made regular jokes about comments by Islamic clerics and Islamic stations TV presenters, exposing contradictions between their comments and public speeches and what he considers the spirit of Islam.

In remarks to a TV presenter on CBC, the private station that airs his Friday program, Youssef said late Saturday that his program does not insult Islam but aims to expose those who "distort" it.

"We don't insult religion. What we do is expose those so-called religious and Islamic stations which have offended Islam more than anyone else," he said. "If anyone is to be investigated for insulting religions, it should be all those who use Islam as a weapon and a political tool to swallow the others using religion."

When asked if programs in Egypt should be less scathing than those of the West, Youssef jibed: "We will give (the West) an example of how freedoms are respected after the revolution," referring to Egypt's 2011 uprising that overthrew authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Amr Moussa, a former presidential candidate and Arab League secretary general, called the warrant a "provocation to Egyptians who are known for their love of what is funny," he said.

"There is nothing odious about criticizing the president," he said in an emailed statement. "This humanizes the president."

Eid, the rights lawyer, said accusing Youssef of insulting religion — as opposed to just the president — is a tactic aimed at increasing public sympathy for the investigation.

"The accusation of insulting religion would mobilize more people against him," Eid said.

The release on bail means "all options are open," Eid added. "The prosecution could continue investigation, put the case aside or send it to trial."

Recent legal moves against protesters, activists and critics come as unrest in Egypt continues amid deep political polarization.

The opposition charges that Morsi, in office for nine months, has failed to tackle any of the nation's most pressing problems. They say the Brotherhood is trying to monopolize power, breaking its promises to include other factions in key decisions.

Morsi blames the country's woes on corruption under Mubarak as well as ongoing protests. He says the opposition has no grassroots support and, along with former regime supporters, is stoking unrest for political gain.

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