- By H. A. HellyerH.A. Hellyer is nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.
There could be more outrageous public relations disasters for a government to engage in. There could be. I just can’t think of any. Imagine Jon Stewart being arrested on charges of insulting U.S. President Barack Obama and insulting Judaism. Then imagine that in the entire English-speaking world, there are only political satirists. You then get to what it means for the Egyptian authorities to issue an arrest warrant for Bassem Youssef, and the easily predictable repercussions. But this case goes far beyond Bassem Youssef — it speaks to the future of freedom of expression and the media in the largest Arab country, and to the success of its ongoing revolution.
Bassem Youssef is a unique phenomenon — a political satirist that is well known all over the Arab world, as well as the West. His meteoric rise through the use of social media and television over the past two years could never have been planned, but he emerged at a time when Egyptians and Arabs were waiting for a non-partisan critic to combine classic Egyptian irony with political awareness. In the aftermath of the Egyptian uprising, Bassem Youssef considered the revolution as a continuing one — and that his role within it would be to push the envelope of public discourse, holding authority to account. But always with humor — and thus far, he has touched not only the hearts of Egyptians, but of Arabs around the world.
During Egypt’s presidential election, I traveled with Bassem and his crew around the United States for a month as subject matter expert for his new show, "America in Arabic." Bassem unscripted and improvised has the same effect as days of preparation — and as he arrived at Cairo’s High Court on Sunday morning, he displayed more of that, tweeting away messages that instantly went viral. With audiences of expatriate Arabs and Egyptians in the United States, he had a consistent message — one that was hard to deliver at a time when Egyptians were depressed that the two top frontrunners for the Egyptian presidency were one man who was part of the former regime and the other who represented a group that embodied less than a revolutionary, to say the least.
Bassem Youssef openly declared he could never vote for Ahmed Shafiq, ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister — but while he never said he’d vote for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, he did confirm that regardless of the victor, one thing would continue. The revolution. The irony is: all of the charges he is now being investigated for are challenges to that revolution and its spirit. Yet, when I spoke to him the night before he presented himself before the court (from which he was eventually released on bail a few hours later), his reaction to those charges remained the same: a stubborn commitment to the ideals of the revolution.
The charges he is being investigated for are "insulting Islam," "insulting the President," and "spreading false news with the aim of disrupting public order." The first charge is particularly intriguing — because the notion of "insulting Islam" is actually one that Bassem Youssef might have been sympathetic to, at least in one respect. When Youssef deemed that a radical, sectarian, or extremist preacher had besmirched the name of his faith, he would often respond on his show, by ridiculing him, using clips from his own online presence. Not once, however, has Youssef ever insulted Islam as a religion — he has never been shy to admit that he is proud to be a practicing Muslim, who values his religion as something pure and clear. He does not extend the same characterization of purity to radical preachers and refuses to acknowledge them as scholars of religion. In that regard, he shares the sentiments of most Egyptians.
Unlike those preachers and their supporters, he doesn’t try taking them to court — he simply shows their bigotry to the world. As the revolution unfolds in Egypt, and beyond in the Arab world, that question around religion will not cease to be pertinent. The stances and efforts of people like Bassem Youssef will contribute to whether or not it is a mainstream, understanding, and respectful interpretation of Islam that wins out, or aggressive, politicized, and narrow misinterpretations that do.
When it comes to the accusation that he is insulting the presidency — the irony is that the presidency is in no need of a law to protect itself from insults. The presidency is the most powerful political office in the country — even if Bassem Youssef were to insult it with every fiber in his being, it is not clear how that would affect it in any way. Indeed, there is a law on the books that does criminalize such speech — a law that has been criticized throughout post-uprising Egypt. One lawyer estimated that the number of lawsuits issued for "insulting the president" during President Morsi’s first 200 days in office was higher than the entire 30-year reign of Mubarak. This law goes far beyond normal notions of libel and defamation — in the hands of an even slightly partisan legal office (such as the current prosecutor general), it can easily be a tool of repression that silences dissent. Indeed, the case today is already being interpreted as a sign that Bassem Youssef’s influence has grown to the point where his uncouth manner of criticizing the presidency has exceeded tolerable bounds. Tolerable, that is, for the presidency.
But there are wider questions here — the questions that revolve around the freedom of speech and freedom of the press in post-uprising Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) official stance on the case is that it has nothing to do with it — that it was not an MB lawsuit that led to Bassem Youssef being issued an arrest warrant. However, the MB has also not come out and denounced the legal procedures that have led to this, some of which are reflected in the constitution that it pushed through late in 2012. Moreover, in their own individual capacities, supporters of Morsi (even senior members of his own party) have expressed their support for a mechanism in which people like Bassem Youssef are fined for such denigrating behavior, even if they prefer the likes of him are not imprisoned. The commitment to a free and open media with such paradigms is deeply wanting — and in a country that is now 158 in the Reporters without Borders "Freedom of the Press Index," there has never been a better time for Egypt’s authorities to take steps to rectify that.
The opportunity for Morsi is clear. Rather than be silent about the case that has been raised against Bassem Youssef to "defend" the name of the presidency, Morsi ought to come out publicly and declare that while he will not interfere with due process, this case does not have the support of the presidency. Moreover, to show his seriousness in this regard, he will recommend, as was hinted in the past, to have the law reformed by parliament, so that this antiquated and insecure legal tool can never be used to stifle criticism again. This law is an insult against the presidency, because all it does is show it to be insecure. Moreover, the president’s moves in this regard would send a message to the rest of Egyptian media — that this is no longer an Egypt where one might be arrested for expressing views, simply because one does not hold political authority as reverently as politicians might wish one did.
This case is not simply about Bassem Youssef, and it would be a mistake to consider it as such. It touches upon the future of the freedom of the press in revolutionary Egypt. To send a clear message to the Egyptian people that this is truly a new, and freer Egypt, Morsi has one last thing to do — accept the invitation of Bassem Youssef to be on his show.
H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Insti
tution, and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.