There are few things dictators hate more than satirists, with their uncomfortable habit of piercing hypocrisy and self-importance with just a few well-placed verbal or written barbs.
Under Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian public's rich horde of satirical memes was an underground phenomenon, the province of cafe talk and SMS messages. That former President Mubarak was commonly called La Vache qui rit ("The Laughing Cow") after the processed cheese brand's mascot, which Egyptian wags insisted Mubarak bore a resemblance to, was something you would never learn from turning on local television and rarely, if ever, from newspapers. You picked it up from friends or acquaintances.
All that changed overnight with the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak in early 2011. The posters of protesters at Tahrir Square relentlessly mocked the president, the themes were quickly taken up on television and newspapers, and it was at this point that Bassem Youssef, a relentlessly genial cardiologist and ardent fan of Jon Stewart's Daily Show, smelled his opportunity.
Working on a shoestring budget, he began posting a satirical news program on YouTube that quickly caught fire with its irreverent willingness to skewer all comers, members of the old authoritarian regime and emerging political factions like the Muslim Brotherhood alike.
A TV contract soon followed, and his success was in many ways a symbol of the best promises of the Egyptian revolution: A country where freedom of expression was tolerated, energizing local politics and culture after decades of being shut in by a military-backed dictatorship. Mr. Youssef, who I knew years ago when he was focused on his medical career, quickly established a major following. It was clear on the ride in from the airport the other day: Over one of Cairo's busiest highways is a billboard plastered with Youssef's face in a spot where just a few years ago advertisements for the low-quality slapstick comedies of the Mubarak era would have been placed. Recently Youssef even got to meet his hero Jon Stewart (video of Youssef and Stewart above).
But while Egypt remains far more open than it was before the revolution, President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood that propelled him to power have shown a worrying willingness to try to silence citizens like Youssef with means similar to those used in the past. Yesterday local media reported that Egypt Prosecutor General Talaat Abdallah recommended that Youssef be investigated for the crime of insulting President Morsi and other government figures.
He's just the latest public figure to be targeted, with Islamist lawyers bringing a string of lawsuits against government critics for the crime of "defamation" or threatening national "stability." Ramadan Abdel Hamid al-Oksory, the Islamist lawyer who filed the initial complaint against Youssef, also started proceedings against Coptic Christian tycoon Naquib Sawiris last year for "insulting Islam."
In Egypt, almost anyone can make a legal complaint against private and public figures for insulting religion or individuals, whether or not they have personal standing in the matter. The new Egyptian constitution outlaws, specifically, both defaming religion and "insulting" individuals. But it's up to the general prosecutor to decide whether investigations will go forward. Mr. Abdallah, a Morsi appointee, has been inclined to accept such cases. With the broad, vaguely defined articles in the constitution, convictions that stick are a real threat for the targets.
Over the weekend, Morsi filed a complaint against leading newspaper al-Masry al-Youm for "circulating false news likely to disturb public peace and public security" after the paper reported, apparently incorrectly, that Morsi was planning to visit a military hospital in a Cairo suburb where Mubarak is currently undergoing treatment. Journalist Yousry al-Badry was summoned for interrogation over the incident by the prosecutor's office.
In November, an Egyptian court sentenced seven Egyptian Copts and Florida preacher Terry Jones to death in absentia for their involvement with a YouTube clip that was deemed insulting to Islam and the prophet Mohammed. Such death sentences were unheard of in Mubarak's day. In October, controversial and conspiratorial talk show host Tawfiq Okasha, often described as the Glenn Beck of Egypt, was sentenced to four months in prison for defaming Morsi after a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party filed a lawsuit against him. Mr. Okasha is appealing.
The growing use of the courts to silence critics, comedians, and dissenters is a clear trend in Egypt, and Egypt's new constitution will make such prosecutions easier than they were under the old one. President Morsi has shown little willingness to stop the suits.
One of the clear gains of Egypt's revolution is under threat. And many of those in power now seem quite comfortable with that.