Egypt satirist's arrest a sign of his growing influence

Just a few weeks ago, Bassem Youssef, the immensely popular host of the weekly ElBernameg, predicted he would be called in to answer to one of a growing pile of legal complaints against him and his show at the public prosecutor's office.

Bassem Youssef was detained for allegedly insulting Islam and President Morsi

Egyptian satirist turns himself in

9 years ago
Bassam Youssef, the man known as Egypt's Jon Stewart, has turned himself in to authorities after he was charged with insulting Islam and President Mohammed Morsi 4:18

Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef had a feeling this day would eventually come.

Just a few weeks ago, the immensely popular host of the weekly ElBernameg predicted he would be called in to the public prosecutor’s office to answer a growing pile of legal complaints against Youssef and his show.

"It was just a matter of time," he said in an interview with CBC News at his downtown Cairo studio. "It was just a matter of time that you’re going to be summoned."

On Saturday, the public prosecutor issued a controversial order to have Youssef arrested and interrogated over allegations he insulted Islam and President Mohammed Morsi, and spread false news with "the aim of disrupting public order."

As many later pointed out, the only upside was that after questioning Sunday — and for the equivalent of just over $2,000 Cdn  — Youssef managed to buy his release on bail, and the kind of publicity that no amount of money can buy.

Yet from the moment the news broke a day earlier, Youssef has tried to put his hallmark humorous touch on the situation: tweeting that he would voluntarily go to the prosecutor’s office — unless police picked him up earlier and saved him the cost of transport.

A smiling Youssef then arrived at court, taking a moment to pose in a ridiculously giant version of a hat Morsi wore as part of academic dress while accepting an honourary university degree in Pakistan earlier this month.

And once inside the courthouse, a series of his tweets kept the mood light among the protesters stewing outside.

"Officers and lawyers want photos with me. Maybe that’s why I was summoned?" he wrote early on. In another tweet he complained about the lack of refreshments.

With all this hilarity, Youssef was making a point clearly lost on those who lodged the complaints against him: that he’s the joker. That, as he told us last month, he’s the guy who sits at the back of the bus and "throws spitballs at everybody" — not exactly an existential threat to those he criticizes.

Prosecutor's politics

Yet benignly uproarious as he may claim to be — and try as he might to downplay his role as a champion of the secular, liberal opposition — Youssef is undoubtedly one of the most potent critics of Egypt’s Islamist president and government. And his enormous popularity (some 30 million across the region watch his show) is apparently viewed as a serious threat.

That’s no crime, and still no reason, say supporters, for an arrest warrant.

By taking that step, the public prosecutor is now accused by the opposition of playing politics, of leaning on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, frequently the focus of Youssef’s allegedly blasphemous barbs.

Detractors believe it’s no laughing matter — that Youssef has simply gone too far. They believe the best possible outcome of all this would be to shut him up.

Egyptian activists shout anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans in front of Egypt's state prosecutors office in support of popular Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef, in Cairo on Sunday. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

Youssef, of course, has denied all charges. In our interview, he even seemed to defend the rights of his critics to take him to court.

"In a free country, you can file a legal complaint as much as you want. It’s the freedom of others to file their own complaints," he told CBC News in the February interview.

He drew the line, however, at partisans using the court system for the benefit of the Brotherhood, and the president.

He said some of his targets among Egyptians have very thin skins.

"Egyptians have a great sense of humour, fantastic sense of of humour: unless you talk about them. Unless you criticize them," he said. "We love sarcasm, and comedy and jokes, as long as the jokes is not on [us]."

Blogger crackdown

One of his biggest wishes, he said, is to actually have President Morsi on his show. For Youssef, that would define success.

"Maybe Morsi himself is watching the show and actually having fun. Who knows?" Youssef said. "I mean I think the guy has a sense of humour, somewhere in him."

During his appearance on Sunday, after a flurry of tweets at first, his feed went silent, and then the previous tweets were deleted altogether. There was no explanation.

Eventually, he tweeted that he was being released, and thanked fans for the attention.

"Touched by people's support and media attention, however, there are many more activists being prosecuted that deserve to get that support," he wrote.

Indeed there are — especially in the past few days, as the prosecutor demanded the arrest and investigation of bloggers and activists accused of inciting violence just days after the president threatened to act against opposition figures.

And as in Youssef’s case, each one of them will test how free the new Egypt really is.

Youssef later apologized for not speaking to the media after the interrogation — saying he was exhausted by the day’s events.

More importantly, he said he’d lost valuable time in preparing the next episode, due as always, on Friday night.

It may be one of his most watched shows yet.