Monday, April 15, 2013

Arrest of Egyptian Satirist No Laughing Matter !

Egypt's Islamist rulers clearly have no sense of humor -- and that may contribute to their undoing. The country's top prosecutor issued an arrest warrant on March 30 for Bassem Youssef, Cairo's most popular comedian.  Youseff hosts a mock news show called, ''El Bernameg'' (The Programme) that evolved out of the uprising two years ago. Its spoofs and satires have become the symbol of a more tolerant society willing to make fun of its foibles.

Yousef's show also reflects the cultural change that has been as important as political change in the Middle East's transformation. Comedy, hip-hop, theater, poetry and film helped give voice to the rejection of both autocrats and extremists in the decade after 9/ll. That changing culture then helped embolden protesters to take to the streets in 2011. But the government of President Mohamed Morsi seems too thin-skinned to tolerate even playful criticism.The prosecutor has charged that the skits on Youseff's late-night show went too far by ''insulting Islam and mocking Morsi.'' But Yousef is outspoken in his adherence to his Muslim faith, and he is an equal-opportunity satirist.

Originally trained as a cardiac surgeon, he raced to Tahrir Square in early 2011 to treat protesters badly beaten by baton-wielding thugs on camelback. The experience turned him into a revolutionary committed to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. It also led to a career change. ''The revolution triggered the idea to do a show exposing the hypocrisy that was happening,'' he said, ''So I became a comedian overnight.'' The first skits made fun of the ensconced elites backing Mubarak. The YouTube videos were an instant sensation at a time when social media was the revolution's primary tool. After Mubarak's ouster, Youseff was picked up by an Egyptian satellite channel. His current show is among the most popular, reaching some 30 million viewers.

During the 18 months of military rule that followed, he daringly poked fun at the generals. During the first democratic presidential last year, he lampooned all 13 candidates. Since Morsi's election in June, Youseff has regularly spoofed the Muslim Brotherhood official, teasing him for everything from his policies to his sometimes clumsy English. Egyptians have a long history of comedy, but political satire was rarely public until the 2011 uprising. For his part, Yousef has taken his arrest on April 1st in stride. ''Police officers and lawyers at the prosecutor general's office want to be photographed with me. Maybe this is why they ordered my arrest,'' he tweeted from the courtroom. He was interrogated for almost five hours and released on bail pending further investigation. ''This won't tame my humor at all,'' he told the mob of reporters. ''I am already planning the next show. I am going to make fun of what happened to me --- and President Morsi. Who else?

Actually, his arrest followed a presidential warning on March 24th that the government was prepared to take unspecified actions to ''protect this nation.''  It is understood that several arrest warrants were soon issued for other critics, a move which raised international concerns over freedom of expression in Egypt's supposed democratic government. The reaction overseas could cost the government dearly. At a moment when Washington was preparing for Morsi's first visit, the State Department criticized Cairo for ''disturbing'' restrictions on free speech, activist unrest, violence against Coptic Christians and uneven justice. In fact, many in Washington are wondering why President Obama would even think of inviting a man who, as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, actively spoke of destroying Israel and renewing ties with Iran. He should wait until he and his government change their rhetoric.

The Way I See It.....if a television program brings down a regime, then this means it was a weak regime that did not deserve to stay in place. I never heard of a program that brought down a regime. It was a relief to hear the case against him was dismissed last week. The court overruled the complaint against Yousef and his show on the grounds that the plaintiff did not have an interest in the case. Mahmoud Abul-Enein, a lawyer for the Muslim Brotherhood, had demanded the withdrawal of the licence of the TV channel that screens El Bernameg, claiming the show ''corrupted morals and violated religious principles.'' President Morsi's office distanced itself from the action, citing the ''the importance of freedom of expression.''

''We did not revolt against a regime that suppresses freedoms to replace it with a regime that (always reminds us) of the alleged freedom it gives,'' Yousef  added that he is denying reports that the Egyptian authorities were behind his decision to stop airing the show for a few weeks. He said he decided to stop production for a while to his team a well-deserved break. ''I will be traveling to America to attend a very important international event that announce shortly.''  Yousef also said that he will continue producing his show, adding that he will turn to YouTube if his program is ever shut down. In conclusion he said, ''The Arab world's new democracies should take note; freely elected governments have a hard time retaining legitimacy -- and ultimately power -- if they can't take a joke.''

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