Bassem Youssef: Egypt’s freedom-of-speech icon

Youssef angered both President Mohammad Mursi and the military-backed authorities

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This year has been a controversial one for Bassem Youssef, one of Egypt’s most popular satirists who hosted the TV show “al-Bernameg” (“The Program”).

He faced several legal complaints and investigations into his work throughout 2013.

“With all the difficulties he faced this year, he became even more popular in Egypt,” Abdullah Hussein, former editor-in-chief of the MENA news agency, told Al Arabiya News.

Ibrahim Abu Kayla, a journalist for the state-run newspaper al-Goumhuria, told Al Arabiya News that Youssef has become “without a doubt one of the icons of post-revolution Egypt.”

The satirist has been under the microscope since the start of his show in 2011.

Youssef was taken to court in March 2013 after he was accused of ridiculing the government of deposed President Mohammad Mursi and insulting Islam.

The charges were dismissed, but questions were raised about freedom of speech.

“Under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, journalists were afraid to criticize the regime because it was so powerful … which thus led to the limitation of freedom of speech in the country,” Osama Saraya, former editor-in-chief of the state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, told Al Arabiya News.

Youssef was undeterred by his arrest, mocking Mursi again the next time he went on air.

The case led the United States to express “real concerns” about the direction being taken by the then-government, Agence France Press reported.

“The Daily Show” presenter John Stewart also expressed support for Youssef.

“Without Bassem and all those journalists and bloggers and brave protesters who took to Tahrir Square to voice dissent, you, President Mursi, wouldn’t have been in a position to repress them,” said the American comedian.

After a four-month hiatus following the holy month of Ramadan and the removal of Mursi, “al-Bernameg” made its comeback in Oct. 2013.

However, following the first episode of the new season, in which Youssef mocked military leaders, the Egyptian private satellite TV channel CBC said it would stop airing the program because it violated the channel’s editorial policy.

The incident garnered mixed public reactions.

“There should be no red lines, but some boundaries that no journalist should cross, no matter who is ruling the country,” Abu Kayla said. “Youssef was crossing the line … He misunderstood the principles of freedom of speech.”

Others, who saw the incident as a step back for free speech in Egypt, called for a boycott of CBC, the Associated Press reported.

Youssef is not the only media figure to face censorship in Egypt since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Prominent talk-show host Reem Magued’s program “Baladna bel Masry” was taken off-air in July after she chanted “down with the military rule” while being interviewed for another show.

Hussein said: “The problem with the media in Egypt now is, it’s either you’re with us or against us. No other opinion is accepted.”

He added: “Stopping a program or a presenter just because they don’t respect the direction the channel follows isn’t right. The right thing would be an opinion and the other opinion. That’s how the media should be.”

Saraya said: “The state of the media in Egypt has changed since Mubarak stepped down … but journalists have to remain far from the army as they’re protected by history. No one should even think of challenging the Egyptian army.”

There are rumors that Youssef and his show will be back on air in February on German TV channel Deutsche Welle, his father told the Egyptian daily news website Al-Ahram.

Youssef was recently named by TIME magazine one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and was crowned “Man of the Year” at the Esquire Middle East Award on Dec. 5.

Thanks to his show, he was the region’s top trending person online in 2013.

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