The harassment of Egyptian comedy talk-show host Bassem Youssef has caught the attention of people across the Arab world, many of whom watch his popular show on satellite television or catch the most hilarious excerpts on YouTube.
It is one of those events that perfectly encapsulates the misgivings that many Arabs have about the rise of Islamist political movements in countries where dictators were dislodged. It would be funny if it did not have such serious implications, not only for Youssef but also for Egypt and the broader region.
Youssef’s basic critique of Morsi is that he is self-important, incompetent, harbors authoritarian tendencies, and is generally ridiculous. With superb indifference to irony, the prosecution of Youssef on charges of “insulting the president” and “showing contempt for religion” lends credibility to Youssef’s satirical characterization of the Egyptian president.
It is disappointing, and unimaginative, that President Morsi, who likes to present himself as a “defender of the revolution” is using exactly the same laws and tactics that President Mubarak used to use to harass and intimidate his critics, which are alienating the same generation whose protests led to Morsi’s presidency.
As one leading freedom of expression activist in Tunisia said to me when we were discussing the case: “With an Islamic party in power, if you criticize their policies they can always accuse you of insulting religion. It is just like in the past when the dictators used to accuse their critics of ‘damaging national unity,’ but this is even more polarizing.”
In largely traditional countries where most people are pious believers, accusing someone of insulting religion is anything but a joke. Religious extremists build popular support by exacerbating divisions along a religious-secular axis, which masks complex social and political challenges facing these transitional societies but strikes a chord with people looking for someone to blame for their troubles.
As research carried out by Human Rights First has shown, where blasphemy cases proliferate political violence often follows as extremist groups incite mobs to take the law into their own hands. In recent days, violent mobs have surrounded Egypt’s Media City, the production site of Youssef’s weekly show and others critical of the Morsi government, and have even assaulted guests appearing on these broadcasts.
These protests–together with the prosecution of Youssef and now also of another comedian, Ali Qandil, on charges of “insulting religion”– are a steepening slippery slope that the Egyptian government would be wise to pull back from.
Apart from making President Morsi and his government look ridiculous, these prosecutions increase distrust and polarization at a time when Egypt, and the rest of the region, needs much less of both.