Cairo: Wearing a giant hat and surrounded by several hundred fans and media, political satirist and telelvision personality Bassam Yousuf turned himself in to an Egyptian court on Sunday to answer allegations he insulted the president and Islam.
Yousuf — dubbed Egypt’s version of US political satirist Jon Stewart — swept to fame after the popular uprising two years ago that saw Hosni Mubarak removed from power in 2011.
Originally Yousuf’s works had appeared on the internet, but he soon had a a mainstream programme that has been compared to Stewart’s Daily Show. It regularly tops 30 million viewers weekly.
The comedian is accused, among other things, of undermining the standing of Islamist President Mohammad Mursi. The prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for him on Saturday after at least four legal complaints filed by Mursi supporters.
An official in the prosecutor general’s office confirmed that questioning had begun. Yousuf voluntarily showed up at the prosecutor general’s office on Sunday, so as to avoid arrest.
He was wearing an oversized version of a graduation hat modelled on one donned by the president when he was awarded an honorary degree in Pakistan earlier in March.
Yousuf has worn the hat on his widely-watched show, one of many satirical jabs at the president. Last year, he poked fun of Mursi’s repeated use of the word “love” by singing a love song to a red pillow with the president’s face printed on it.
The questioning of the comedian has raised fears over freedom expression in the post-Mubarak Egypt.
“It is an escalation in an attempt to restrict space for critical expression,” said Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch.
Yousuf’s questioning came after the prosecutor general issued five arrest warrants for prominent political activists accused of inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled Mursi to power in last year’s election.
The prosecutor’s office has also summoned several other prominent media figures for questioning over accusations they insulted the president.
Opposition figures say the prosecutor, Talaat Abdullah, is biased towards Mursi, who appointed him last November, and they want him removed from office.
A court ruled last week that Abdullah’s appointment was illegal and that he must step down. Abdullah, who denies any bias, plans to appeal the ruling.
The move underscores the cultural clash between the highly conservative Islamists who dominate Egypt’s government and the irreverent spirit of the mostly liberal and secular activists who spearheaded the revolution that toppled the country’s long-ruling autocrat and paved the way for the Islamists’ electoral victories.
Morsi warned of an impending crackdown on the media in a speech last weekend that was criticised for using vulgar sexual imagery to describe foreign countries alleged interference in Egyptian affairs. Yousuf mocked the speech on his most recent show.
“Incitement is a crime and a contribution to a crime,” Morsi said. “False news is a crime. If I have to take the necessary [measures] to preserve the security of this homeland, I will do so. And, I am sorry to say, I am about to do so.”
Yousuf, a sharp-witted former surgeon, took the summons in stride.
He declared on his Twitter page that he would answer the court’s summons on Sunday unless the court dispatched a vehicle to him on Saturday “and save me transportation trouble,” a reference to the capital’s infamous traffic woes.
A group of Islamist lawyers filed complaints against Yousuf in January, accusing him of undermining Morsi, but the charges were dropped before the case came to court.
“We are not the ones who insult religion,” Yousuf said in a phone interview with TV anchor Lamees Al Hadidy on Saturday night on Egypt’s CBC channel. “If there is anyone who has insulted religion, it is those who use Islam as a weapon for political reasons.”
“The lack of independence of the Egyptian judiciary, as is generally the case elsewhere in the Arab world, makes it a tool in the hands of those in power to pursue and punish their opponents,” human rights lawyer Jamal Eid said by phone today.
“Bassam’s case is in big part a test balloon,” he said. “If it goes through without a popular backlash despite his wide popularity, it will be easy to go after a long list of opponents.”
Hassan Yassin, a spokesman for the prosecutor general, didn’t answer calls seeking comment. Mursi has repeatedly said he respects the independence of the judiciary and is committed to freedoms, including of the press.
On his way to the building housing the prosecution office, Yousuf was forced to squeeze through supporters chanting “Bassam, Bassam,” as they gathered in solidarity.