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When Egypt's satirists poke fun, public prosecutor hits back (+video)

The case of Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist accused of insulting Islam and the president, has exposed what seems to be a series of politically motivated investigations into government critics. 

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“The Presidency reiterates the importance of freedom of expression and fully respects press freedom. All citizens are free to express themselves without the restrictions that prevailed in the era of the previous regime,” said the statement.

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Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, says it is disingenuous to cast this as business as usual. “It's false to make the argument that this is just an organic application of the law and there's no political decision made in it,” she says.

In accordance with the Egyptian legal system, private citizens brought the complaints against Youssef, Qandil, and Ms. Abu El Khir. In such cases, the prosecutor must look into the complaints and decide whether there is evidence to open an investigation or not. He is not obligated to open one. But by referring Abu El Khir's and Youssef's cases to state security prosecutors, he has significantly escalated them.

When the prosecutor has “piles and piles” of complaints on police torture and extrajudicial killings and chooses to prioritize cases against journalists and satirists, she says, “it sends a message.”

'Joke by joke' interrogation

Rights activists have long criticized laws criminalizing the defamation of religion and insulting the president, arguing they limit freedom of expression and are used to repress minorities or silence those with unpopular views. 

Youssef, often called the “Jon Stewart of Egypt” in the Western press, hosts a popular political satire show here modeled on The Daily Show. Originally a heart surgeon, he volunteered in makeshift medical centers during the protests that brought down former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and soon after started producing his own show on YouTube. Its popularity earned the show a spot on a private television network.

Youssef often mocks Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party on Al Bernameg. When he arrived for his interrogation on March 31, he wore an oversized hat he had worn on the program, mocking a hat Morsi wore while receiving an honorary degree in Pakistan. He said in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour that the prosecutors reviewed the shows in which he had supposedly insulted the president or Islam, questioning him “joke by joke.” He compared the case to a modern-day Inquisition. 

That evening, Abu el Khir, the journalist with the Committee to Protect Journalists, called in to a television show called in to host Gaber el Qarmouty's political talk show to discuss Youssef's interrogation, which she attended. 

She said the questioning had been fair, but she also said it never should have happened in the first place. 

“Continuing the investigation means there is a need to silence Bassem,” Ms. Abu el Khir says, repeating what she said on the air. "There is a need to silence all opposition media people, from speaking loudly, from speaking in opposition to the regime.”

The next morning, April 1, there was a case filed against her, too – for threatening national security and insulting the judiciary. Later that day, acting in what Abu el Khir describes as uncharacteristic haste, the case was referred to a state security prosecutor. 

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