Early Saturday morning (30th March), I received word that Bassem Youssef, the Arab world’s ‘Jon Stewart’, had been issued an arrest warrant and compulsory summons by the prosecutor-general. The charges? ‘Insulting Islam’ and ‘insulting the president’. I was not really sure if this was actually a news story, or a gimmick that Bassem Youssef’s team had come up with – because certainly, it was never, ever, going to be something that the Egyptian state was going to benefit from.
Even as Bassem Youssef goes to the High Court to respond to the summons, I guarantee – it will not be a day that works out in his opponents’ favor.H.A. Hellyer
Even as Bassem Youssef goes to the High Court to respond to the summons, I guarantee – it will not be a day that works out in his opponents’ favor. [I advise everyone who has the opportunity – go to the High Court on the 31st March, and see what is going to take place. I promise you – it will be a morning to remember.]
Within a few hours of the news going to press, two things seemed abundantly clear. The first was that the prosecutor general’s office had turned this into a rather exceptional case – usually, a summons of this nature is ordered, and in the event that the summoned does not make an appearance, an arrest warrant is issued. Alternatively, after the summoned arrives, of his or her own volition, an arrest may be then made after questioning – but he or she might also be released. (Last week, this is precisely what happened to Alaa Abdel Fattah, an Egyptian activist who was a thorn in the sides of Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and now President Mursi). In this case, however, Bassem Youssef was issued with an arrest warrant from the start – something rather unusual, displaying some rather prejudicial intent.
The second thing that was absurdly clear: the prosecutor-general’s office has little media savvy. Saturday is ordinarily a slow news-day. Something like this was bound to get attention – but on a Saturday, it just meant that pretty much every news-service was going to give this story time. Within 12 hours, the BBC, Associated Press, The New York Times, Tahrir Squared, the Huffington Post, and many others, covered the story. By Monday morning, the story is almost guaranteed to be in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and the Wall Street Journal – and these are just the English language mediums. National and international pressure will come down hard, and it is hard to see where the possible benefit of raising the case can actually be.
It is an interesting claim – ‘insulting Islam’. One presumes that considering Bassem Youssef is publicly known (and not shy to identify himself) as a Muslim, it is not about a denial of Islam. Moreover, he is someone who takes his religion quite seriously, but not as someone who ‘wears it on his sleeve’. He prays, and has respect for scholars of his religion – so, it’s not quite clear where the ‘insulting Islam’ claim really comes from. But, of course, it is quite clear indeed – the complaint is a blatant attempt to equivocate between ‘Islam’ and ‘certain Muslims’ – individuals that have tried to cloak themselves in the garb of religion, while causing social havoc. Bassem Youssef’s shows have never insulted Islam, a religion he holds dear – but certainly, they will offend certain individuals, who see fit to instrumentalize and abuse religion for wholly non-religious aims.
Insulting the president – that is less interesting, as it is a transparent and thinly veiled attempt to inculcate in Egypt a sense that criticism of authority should be tantamount to a crime. No-one in the Egyptian political establishment has escaped the comic wrath of Bassem Youssef – the opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – they have all been lampooned in one way or another. That should never be interpreted as a threat to authority – if anything, if authority can learn from the criticisms that are laid at its door, arguably, those in authority become better at governing. In this case, however, it seems the lessons are simply being ignored.
There’s no benefit here for the Egyptian state at all. If the Egyptian state were calculating and clever, they would have asked, or even insisted, that Bassem Youssef host the Egyptian president on his show, and give him the opportunity to show that his authority is not weakened by a political satirist. Instead, the Egyptian state has simply given critics more reasons to criticise – and ironically, almost certainly increased Bassem Youssef’s popularity in Egypt and worldwide.
Dr H A Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. He is the Subject Matter Expert of the new show by Bassem Youssef, ‘America in Arabic’. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com