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Worldwide support for Egyptian satirist’s fight for free speech

Published: Updated:

With nothing to declare but his wit, Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef’s fight for free speech has been buoyed on Monday by top U.S. satirist Jon Stewart, who Youssef has been internationally likened to.

Continuing Youssef’s theme of poking fun at the Egyptian president, Stewart did the same.

“I know Bassem pretty well,” Stewart said on his Monday night episode of The Daily Show, “so you can imagine I was shocked that this whole time I was consorting with a criminal!”

“If insulting the presidency and Islam here were illegal [in the U.S.], Fox News would go bye-bye!”

“Sounds like Egypt’s Mohammed Mursi’s got his hands full,” adds Stewart after a brief rundown of crises in Egypt which have peaked since the revolution, including diving tourism revenues, economic drawbacks, aging infrastructure and a spike in sexual harassment.

“Can’t wait to see how President Mursi tackles these complex and urgent issues,” he satirically says before beginning to chew over the arrest of Youssef for insulting the presidency, which included mocking Mursi for his English skills and for the hat he wore in Pakistan while being awarded an honorary degree.

“Making fun of the president’s hat and his less-than-fluent English, that was my entire career for eight years!” Stewart said, bringing up an image of a previous George Bush sketch, in which he wore a hat identical to that one worn by the former U.S. president.

“Has he [Youssef] been sabotaging Egypt’s infrastructure? Harassing Egyptian women on the streets, or unemploying the Egyptian people? What did he do?” Stewart asks mockingly.

Stewart then proceeded to show clips of Mursi insulting Jews and Zionism, with one clip showing Mursi labeling them the “descendants of apes and pigs.”

International eyes on Youssef

Turning up at the prosecutor’s office after an arrest warrant was issued from him, then placed on bail last week, Youssef has attracted support from a host of international observers, slapping him on the back for his comedic free speech.

Youssef “isn’t scared of anybody,” CNN presenter Christiane Amanpour previously said of the satirist.

“With so much political turmoil in the country, Youssef’s mission is to make Egyptians laugh, while informing them at the same time,” Amanpour added, before an interview with the comedian in December 2012.

Back then, Youssef had said the “president has been accepting [his sketches] well,” and that he even invited Mursi to the show.

“This is the best time to have a politically satire program in Egypt. We are the drama queen of the world with everything that’s happening …. Comic satire is the best way to comment on everything,” he told Amanpour.

But the presidency’s targeting of Bassem Youssef was described as a “political witch hunt” by UK-based newspaper The Independent this week after his arrest.

In an article questioning whether the comedian’s jokes “went too far,” the newspaper tied in Youssef’s arrest with another set of arrests of Mursi’s prominent opponents.

“Last week, following a series of clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s general prosecutor issued arrest warrants for five prominent opponents of Mr. Mursi’s. They included the high-profile blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who was arrested in 2011 and also back in 2006 during the time of Hosni Mubarak.”

Youssef’s arrest has also raised questions over the possibility of a wider censorship of the media, a report from the UK-based newspaper The Guardian noted.

“For several months, the prosecutor-general has summoned journalists for questioning on charges of criminal defamation. But no related legal proceedings have yet been set in motion, which is why this week's developments have so alarmed the opposition,” the report stated.

With the news reaching across Europe and the rest of the world, comments from France24 on Youssef’s 15,000 Egyptian pound bail release, included a mention of his “irreverent humor” when he arrived wearing an oversized version of the hat Mursi wore in Pakistan.

“Bassem Youssef was even cracking jokes via Twitter even when he was in the prosecutor’s office,” a Cairo correspondent from France24 noted.

Youssef’s tweets via his verified Twitter account included: "Police officers and lawyers at the prosecutor-general's office want to be photographed with me, maybe this is why they ordered my arrest?"

"Then they asked me: What is the color of your eyes Bassem?" tweeted the green-eyed former physician turned satirist.

Local Egyptian press has generally sided with Youssef, as seen in daily online English-language newspaper Egypt Independent and even state-owned outlets, such as Ahram Online. News reports on comedian’s arrest have been fast and frequent, with protests from Youssef’s supporters also dominating the headlines.