Egypt is no country for comedians
Giuseppe Acconcia 18 April 2013

During the protests held two years ago and during the months that followed a new creative resistance movement appeared in Egypt with bloggers, rappers and graffiti writers. For the very first time these young artists were able to use words and the language of power to criticize the regime. Over the months opportunities for dissent have been reduced but young and brilliant comedians took over this “revolutionary” technique for criticising the regime with parodies addressed at political leaders and the president of the republic, Mohammed Morsi, personalities that had so far been ignored by public ridicule and irreverent attributions. In February 2011 the famous Egyptian comedian Adel Imam has been accused of blasphemy. In his films made during the 80s the comedian often targeted religion and Imam was arrested and then later released. Many activists have criticised him for his controversial statements about the 2011 uprisings.

Dr. Bassem Youssef’s case: from YouTube to charges of “blasphemy” and arrest

What is even more obvious is the attempt to censor Bassem Youssef, accused of slandering President Morsi. Attorney General Talaat Abdallah ordered the comedian be investigated for “blasphemy”, for “insulting the president” and the “prestige of the state.” The incriminating event took place during the programme el-Barnameg, broadcast by the privately-owned TV network Cbc. The Friday evening show had become an unmissable event for millions of Egyptians and on one show that enraged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the popular comedian had shown extracts of an interview with the Egyptian president. His ironical comment was that Morsi deserved an Oscar as “Best Actor, Best Editor and Best Director.”

In January the comedian had already been accused following an imitation of the president and charges were brought by a citizen offended by the “meaningless ridiculing and slander addressed at the head of state.” Bassem Youssef had posted his programme on YouTube and following the success it achieved it was picked up by the private network Ontv. This was the first time that a programme posted on line had been seen by 33 million people in Egypt and had signed many lucrative advertising deals. From the very first episodes the comedian often targeted members of the Salafites movement with great perspicacity and irony. Youssef explained that the American satirical TV host Jon Stewart had said he does not believe in coincidental creativity but in one that is planned and constructed and therefore “that is how we write our scripts, based on research and reporting.”

Censorship of this comedian became more serious on March 30 when a warrant for his arrest was issued. The popular TV host attended the attorney general’s office wearing a copy of the wide-brimmed hat worn by Morsi during a recent visit to Pakistan where he was awards a degree ad honorem. The comedian was released on bail after a few hours, but his problems seem to have just begun. Youssef himself reported the charges which range from “spreading false news” to “disturbing the peace and threatening security” from “insulting Pakistan” to “propaganda of atheism.” Threats soon included closing down his programme and the CBC channel, In an article published by al-Shorouk irreverently entitled Things go better with the Brotherhood, Youssef was ironical in guaranteeing that Islamists will soon be appointed to all state institutional positions, saying “Muslim Brothers are citizens like us why don’t we trust them?” and advising everyone to be content with being “pawns in their hands.”

The Islamists’ reaction to the comedian’s release and the spreading of censorship

The presidency of the republic has denied criticising and bringing charges against Bassem Youssef. “This was a decision made by the attorney general and one we did not interfere with”, reads a statement issued by Morsi. However the intransigent Salafite Sheikh Abdullah Badr did far more and in a Friday sermon requested that judges who opposed taking the programme off the air should be hanged. “Bassem Youssef is mad,” he said speaking live on television, “and everything he does is pure madness, ignorance and uncivilised. If I were in power I would ask for the judges to be hanged, I swear I would have them hanged.” According to the sheikh, the Egyptian judges who released the comedian are “without consciences” and therefore should be executed. Badr has also attacked the country’s independent media, guilty in his opinion of “spreading western culture and destroying Egyptian values.” Youssef’s continuous references to the American comedian Jon Stewart and his support for his Egyptian colleague upset radical movements that reacted to an alleged “foreign attempt to destabilize Egyptian institutions.”

The case does not end here and involves dissent and satire in a regime still based on authoritarian rules. Not only, it also clarifies how ambiguous the line between freedom of expression and defence of morals is in a country that has approved a constitution written mainly by Islamists and one leaving the issue of an independent media to laws that have not yet been passed. Ontv’s journalist Gaber Al-Karmouti was accused of “insulting judges and disturbing the peace” after broadcasting a live phone call with Shaima Abul Kheir, representative of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists in which the government was accused of obstructing the work of the independent press. Last month the Cairo television production centre was attacked by Salafite groups while production on two films, one about the Brotherhood and the other about the Egyptian Jewish community, was obstructed. One must also bear in mind the recent sentence, later suspended, sanctioning restrictions in access to YouTube for not having removed images of the blasphemous film on the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Produced in the United States, the film had resulted in serious protests throughout the Middle East in September.

The Muslim Brotherhood is having to address the reality of the media and is falling into the same temptations experienced by Mubarak, although the use of communications techniques made by comedians and journalists, are far more effective than in the past.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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