The two cases – involving Egypt’s most popular television satirist and a Palestinian journalist – suggest that the so-called “Arab spring” has made political leaders no less willing than those of decades past to try to silence critics by claiming their dignity has been harmed.
Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian broadcaster sometimes likened to Jon Stewart and whose program on a private satellite channel draws 30 million viewers, was released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200) on Sunday after Egypt’s prosecutor-general issued an arrest warrant and summoned him for several hours of questioning.
Youssef seemed unfazed by the official action, arriving at prosecutor-general Talaat Abdallah’s office wearing an outsized hat which he has used in his television show to mock Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, and sending several derisive messages on his Twitter account from Abdallah’s office.
“Police officers and lawyers at the prosecutor-general’s office want to be photographed with me, maybe this is why they ordered my arrest?” one of the postings read.
But Youssef’s lampooning of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have hit a nerve and could land him in prison.
Abdallah – controversially appointed by Morsi last November to a position that is meant to be non-political, and viewed as biased towards the Brotherhood – says he is investigating complaints that Youssef insulted the president, denigrated Islam and spread false news designed to disrupt public order.
At least one of the complaints originated from the Muslim Brotherhood. It was filed by Brotherhood lawyer Mohamed Abou el-Enein who said Youssef used his show to “offend symbols of the nation such as President Mohamed Morsi.”
Hours before he complied with the summons, Youssef in a phone interview with a television station rejected the allegation that he had insulted Islam.
“If there is anyone who has insulted religion it is those who use Islam as a weapon for political reasons,” the Al-Ahram daily quoted him as saying.
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called the actions against the satirist “pathetic efforts to smother dissent and intimidate media,” usually only seen in fascist regimes.
During a debate hosted by the American University in Cairo last February, Youssef said anyone who does not follow the Islamists’ version of Islam is demonized.
In response to a question from the audience about where he saw Egypt heading in the next five years, he replied, “I certainly don’t know, nobody has the crystal ball. But let’s have fun while going there!”
Many Islamists do not share his sense of humor, however. Some have held protests outside private television channels viewed as critical of Morsi, and last January Islamist lawyers tried to bring a lawsuit against Youssef for “undermining the standing of the president.” That complaint did not reach court.
Anti-Islamist activists in Egypt have been bracing for a crackdown, after Morsi warned a week ago that he would take extraordinary measures following violent clashes between Brotherhood supporters and opponents.
After that warning, Abdallah issued arrest warrants for five prominent anti-Islamist activists, accusing them of inciting the violence.
Watch your tongue
The Jerusalem Post reported that a Palestinian journalist has been sentenced to one year in prison for “insulting” Palestinian Authority (P.A.) chairman Mahmoud Abbas, in the second case of its kind this year.
The report said Mamdouh Hamamreh was convicted after “sharing a photo on Facebook that compared Abbas to a man who played the role of a French spy in a popular Syrian TV series.”
A Palestinian Authority court in Bethlehem found the journalist guilty of publishing a photo “harming his excellency the president, disseminating lies, libel and slander and publishing material that spreads seeds of hatred,” it said.
Last February, a man in Nablus named Anas Awad was imprisoned for a year after posting a photo on Facebook depicting Abbas as a player for the Spanish soccer team, Real Madrid.
Why Abbas should have felt insulted by being linked to one of the world’s best-loved sports franchises – or for that matter a star in a popular television program – is unclear.
In both cases the complaints were brought under a Jordanian law dating back to 1960s which outlaws actions amounting to “extending one’s tongue” against the king.
The dignity law in question, which carries penalties of one to three years’ imprisonment, applies to “His Majesty the King” but in its 2002 Basic Law, the P.A. amalgamated aspects of the legal systems of Jordan, Egypt, and the British mandate of Palestine that ended in 1948.
Jordan occupied the West Bank between 1948 and 1967, and Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip over the same period.
The same “extending one’s tongue” law was used last year against a Palestinian blogger who, borrowing a slogan popular in some Arab spring-type protests, launched a Facebook campaign entitled “The people want an end to corruption.”
Lese-majeste laws – outlawing acts that insult a sovereign – are in place in several Arab and European countries, including Jordan, Kuwait, Denmark and Norway. (In Kuwait, an opposition supporter was jailed for two years on Sunday after being convicted of using his Twitter account to insult the emir, the doyen of a tribal dynasty that has ruled Kuwait since the 18th century.)
Not only is Abbas not an Arab royal, but his mandate as “president of the State of Palestine” expired in January 2009, since when elections have been postponed indefinitely.
The U.S. has provided more than $4 billion in bilateral assistance to the Palestinians since P.A. self-rule was established under the Oslo Accords in the 1990s, and the Obama administration last month unblocked almost $500 million in aid.
The Palestinian territories are in 146th place and Egypt in 158th place (out of 179) in Reporters Without Borders’ latest annual world press freedom index.