x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Comedy or farce? Arrest of satirist in Egypt may be both

The charges against Bassem Youssef will have a chilling effect on criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood. That is precisely their intent.

In typical fashion, Bassem Youssef, the Middle East's most popular television satirist, mocked the charges against him when they were first reported, and mocked them again this week after appearing in court.

In his first show of 2013, Youssef, who presents a weekly satirical show called Al Bernameg, led his viewers in a comedic set-up: "Despite our pessimism about the year just past, I have to say, I'm optimistic," he deadpanned. "I really think this year will be better than last year."

He then played a news clip announcing that charges had been filed against him for insulting the president. "I'd like to say," as he turned to the camera, putting on an exaggerated accent in English, "to anyone who files charges against me: Why? Why you do this?"

Why indeed? The charges against Youssef are no laughing matter. They are a further sign of the repressive and increasingly autocratic nature of Mohammed Morsi's presidency. Those who have been willing to give Mr Morsi the benefit of the doubt because of his democratic mandate have been offered ample evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood's instincts are not all that dissimilar from those of Hosni Mubarak.

In the western press, Youssef, a surgeon turned satirist, is often described as Egypt's Jon Stewart. And while he openly admits he is a fan of the American comedian, Youssef's reach is far greater - his television show averages around 30 million viewers across the Arab world, dwarfing Stewart's two million. And Youssef's mission is far more serious.

Youssef is very much the voice of metropolitan Cairo and by extension the urban elites of Egypt. It is these people who found the prospect of an Islamist president impossible to imagine and who continue to fear the takeover of the last remnants of secularism in Egypt and the stifling of any criticism of the Brotherhood.

It is from elites - and beyond them, the ranks of young people - who can be found protesting against the government of Mr Morsi, seeing in every ill-planned gesture or bungled policy the hand of the Brotherhood reaching out for more power.

And how right they are. Youssef represents a litmus test of free speech in a country long denied such outlets. Egypt's press under Mr Mubarak was more rambunctious than that of other Middle Eastern countries, but there were clear red lines. And those that weren't clear were made explicit. When one newspaper editor ran a story about Mr Mubarak's health, he was jailed.

What the former president understood was the chilling effect such repression brought. Not knowing where the lines were made everyone nervous, leaving editors unsure if the newspaper sent for publication overnight would bring the mukhabarat to their door in the morning. That was the power of the "chilling effect", a legal term that conveys the effect on free speech that excessive, and unclear, sanctioning can have.

It is precisely this situation that Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood are seeking to bring about. By going after someone with the popularity of Youssef, the government, via the Morsi-appointed prosecutor general, Talaat Abdallah, is sending a clear signal that dissent will not be tolerated.

The prosecution of Youssef came about after several complaints were made against him by lawyers with Islamist links. Such complaints are common, part and parcel of the boisterous media scene in postrevolutionary Egypt: the liberal media attacks the Islamist and the Islamists fight back, with their own media and with the law.

But the difference is that such complaints are rarely taken up by the prosecutor-general; that Mr Abdallah has chosen to do so against Youssef sends - and is obviously intended to send - a clear message.

Youssef has been released on bail. He may yet be returned to court to face the charges, or the case may be set aside.

But the damage - and it will be widespread and pernicious - has been done.

A line in the sand has been drawn. Other less notable satirists will now be afraid that they too may be prosecuted, and if so, that they may not have the public profile to be saved from prosecution.

This is almost certainly the Brotherhood's intent: to shut down dissent at the bottom by going after those at the top. If Youssef, with his millions of viewers, can be dragged into court, then so can the casual tweeter and the casual video blogger.

The Brotherhood, however, may have miscalculated its Egyptian opposition. The metropolitan elite and the youth of the street are not so easily cowed as they were under Mr Mubarak. President Morsi and the Brotherhood could yet find themselves besieged by criticism - of the most scathing, sarcastic kind, the kind that only Egyptians can provide - and without the possibility of being given the benefit of the doubt.

In an interview given before his court hearing, Youssef warned that the restrictions on freedom of expression succeed only if the public accepts them and stands idle while they are applied.

The outpouring of public support for Youssef - and the hundreds thronging outside the courtroom this week - suggest that his warning has been heeded.

If the Brotherhood intended Youssef's prosecution to be the set-up to a punchline of silence, they may yet find the joke is on them.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai