The situation Bassem Youssef finds himself in is no laughing matter.
The Egyptian satirist, who has been targeted by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-led government for prosecution for the crime of “insulting religion” and the president, is facing years in prison for his irreverent approach to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood stalwart who was catapulted into the presidency thanks to the powerful political organization he hails from last year.
Over the weekend, Youssef was arrested and taken in for questioning, during which he was forced to defend his jokes. He has since been released on bail.
Jon Stewart, the American comedian, inspired Youssef (a cardiologist with a sense of humor when I knew him socially in the mid-2000s) to grab the opportunities of post-Mubarak Egypt and launch his show, which is unabashedly based off of Mr. Stewart’s The Daily Show (although it involves far more broad comedy). The show, Al Bernameg, has become wildly popular. When Youssef was invited onto The Daily Show a few months ago, he was equal parts a ham and honest when he played up his delight at tossing jokes back and forth with his former idol, now a peer.
Two nights ago, at the start of his show, Stewart delivered a funny and pointed defense of the fellow satirist. He rightly pointed out that making fun of the president’s choice in hats (as Bassem did in one famous clip) shouldn’t be treated as a threat to social order in any modern society, and that leaders who fear being skewered by comedians are invariably either despots, or on the road to becoming one.
As for the charge of insulting religion? Stewart dredged up clips of Morsi describing Jews as the descendants of apes and pigs from as recently as 2010, as well as other clips from Morsi insisting that the new Egypt would protect the right to speak one's mind.
Defamation of religion charges filed against Morsi so far? None.
The official Twitter feed for Morsi’s office criticized the US for disseminating “negative political propaganda” and the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English-language account wrote “Another undiplomatic & unwise move by @USEmbassyCairo, taking sides in an ongoing investigation & disregarding Egyptian law & culture.”
The US standing up, tall, for a specific free speech case in Egypt (rather than general platitudes) is indeed noteworthy. And the growing use of vague “defamation” of religion laws or “insulting the president” laws since Morsi took power is worrying, given that many had hoped that the fall of Mubarak would bring a new dawn to the Arab world’s largest country.
That’s as neutral an intro to an interesting link on Egypt as one could find. But the Brothers were highly – no, highly! – outraged, as their response shows.
So US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson stepped in. Her decision? To shut down the embassy Twitter feed for a while and delete the offending tweet.
That, of course, was the worst of both worlds. It gave the Egyptian government a reason to make a show of taking offense and then caved fast to their complaints. It doesn’t help that many of the democracy activists who complain that Morsi’s government is chipping away at the democracy that brought it to power also charge that the US has been too friendly to the Brotherhood.
More importantly, however, Ambassador Patterson’s decision to pull the plug reflects an uncoordinated and ill-planned approach to the relatively minor diplomatic fallout. If anything, the backlash from the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood adds credibility to the position against legal harassment of political activists (and comedians). Deleting tweets and closing accounts not only shows ignorance of the dynamics of social media (and the capacity to “Storify” or take screenshots) but also implies that critics can strong-arm the US online presence if it takes an unpopular stance. The ambassador, the face of US diplomacy in Egypt, already suffers from the stigma of stronger relations with the Muslim Brotherhood that taints her relations with opposition or nonprofit organizations that more closely share US values. Try not to make it worse.
Today the Brothers doubled down. While Jon Stewart may have used satire to criticize Morsi and the government for silencing a comedian and a critic, and the US embassy may have shared it, the eagle-eyed Max Fisher of the Washington Post noticed that the Brotherhood’s English language Twitter feed shared a video, saying: “@AJArabic feature on West's double standards regarding freedom of speech, or lack of, and anti-Semitism.”
The linked video? A 2010 Al Jazeera Arabic report on the firing of former CNN host Rick Sanchez for suggesting Jews control the US media and that Stewart, who is Jewish, “does not belong to an authentic minority group.” That Al Jazeera report asserts that there is a double standard in the US in which Jews are treated with kid gloves and all else are fair game, due to Jewish media control.
The US Embassy in Cairo twitter feed is open again for business. Its last two tweets at the time of writing?
“President #Obama has informed the Israelis that the Palestinians deserve a state” (in Arabic), from March 26, and ” MT @kjdenhert: An exciting adventure begins. Here's a promo video with all of the bands participating!” from March 24 (with a link to the Cairo Jazz Festival).