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Controversy Over Egyptian Comedian Facing Gov't Prosecution Morphs into a Twitter War

BY Lisa Goldman | Tuesday, April 2 2013

Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef (credit: Hossam El Hamalawy / Flickr)

When the Egyptian prosecutor's office summoned a famous comedian and political satirist for questioning, accusing him of insulting the president and Islam, a war of words ensued on Twitter. On one side was the U.S. State Department, in the form of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, squaring off against the Egyptian president's office and Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood's official media wing, which has an active Twitter account. On the sidelines ordinary 'netizens queued up to cheer and jeer.

Bassem Youssef, a comedian and political satirist who is frequently referred to as the Egyptian Jon Stewart, is the host of a weekly satire show, al Bernameg (The Show). Modeled on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, the Egyptian version attracts about 30 million viewers per episode, making Youssef the most famous comedian in the Middle East.

The 39 year-old heart surgeon turned comedian is famous for his irreverent skewering of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Youssef rose to fame in March 2011, shortly after the Egyptian uprising toppled authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, when he began recording and uploading his show to his YouTube channel. Within a couple of months he had 15 million viewers, at which point Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris stepped in to offer the comedian a slot on ONTV, a satellite channel that he owns.

On Sunday Youssef appeared at the prosecutor's office in response to the summons. He was questioned for several hours and left the office after posting bail amounting to the equivalent of US $2,200. In interviews with the international media, the comedian expressed exasperation at the government for enforcing arcane laws that predate even the deposed authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak, while vowing to continue mocking the president — which he did, on his next show.

Youssef's summons generated headlines in the English-language international media because he made a widely publicized appearance on Jon Stewart's Daily Show last summer, during which the two comedians appeared to develop an instant bond.

On the Monday night episode of The Daily Show, Stewart delivered an impassioned 10-minute monologue in defense of Youssef, in which the American comedian referred to the Egyptian as his "brother." Stewart exposed the Egyptian president's own racism and hypocrisy by showing a clip in which he referred to Jews as apes and pigs, and another in which he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that in his Egypt, dissent would be tolerated.

Facing the camera and addressing Morsi directly, Stewart said, "By the way, without Bassem, and all those journalists and bloggers, and brave protestors who took to Tahrir Square to voice dissent, you, President Morsi, would not be in a position to repress them." At another point in his monologue, Stewart said, "“When you are actually powerful, you don’t have to be petty. For someone who spent time in jail yourself under Mubarak, you seem awfully eager to send other people there for the same non-crimes. And just like you, they will emerge just stronger and more accomplished.” Volunteers have already subtitled the episode in Arabic, posting it on YouTube.

Come Tuesday morning, the U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted the link to the previous night's episode of the Daily Show. Almost immediately, President Morsi's office responded with a tart tweet of its own: "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

Ikhwanweb, the media outlet for the Muslim Brotherhood, re-tweeted the irate comment from President Morsi's official account. The president rose to power through the Muslim Brotherhood, but claims he resigned from the organization before running for office as head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). But the FJP is widely regarded as the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, the FJP issued an angry response to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who, commenting on the official summons of Bassem Youssef, accused the Egyptian government of stifling freedom of expression. According to Foreign Policy, the FJP expressed its ire on the party's official Facebook page, noting that it was "outraged at her 'unreserved audacity' and her 'blatant interference in the internal affairs of Egypt on an issue that is still under investigation' and is being dealt with through the Egyptian legal system."

Egyptian netizens are busy jeering at Ikhwanweb. Mohamed Abdelfattah (@mfatta7) mocked an unofficial Muslim Brotherhood supporter for claiming on Facebook that Jon Stewart was an "American Jew" who "disparages Islam." Astute political observer @TheBigPharaoh remarked, "The reason why the regime hates Basem Yousef so much is because he speaks the language that Egyptians love: humor."

In January-February 2011 social media played an enormous role in reporting the Egyptian uprising in real time. Then, it was a subversive tool which the Mubarak regime tried to repress. But now it has become a mainstream platform that is used equally by official government outlets and their opponents. It is also used by the media as a source, with the Washington Post and Egypt's Al Ahram newspaper referencing Facebook statuses and tweets in their reports about the prosecution of Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef.

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