Egypt’s top prosecutor received complaints Saturday against a popular television satirist less than 24 hours after he returned to the air, as the private TV station that airs his program sought to distance itself from its contents.
The legal complaints and the reaction of the private station CBC highlight the low tolerance this deeply divided country has for criticism of the military and its leaders.
Bassem Youssef, often compared to U.S. comedian Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s satirical “The Daily Show,” mocked the new pro-military fervor gripping Egypt in his program that aired Friday night.
Youssef also took jabs at the country’s powerful military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, lionized in the Egyptian media as a hero after leading a July 3 coup that ousted the country’s elected Islamist president following massive protests.
By Saturday, at least four complaints had been filed with the country’s top prosecutor, accusing Youssef of defaming the military in his show, a judicial official said. One of the complaints accused Youssef of using phrases that “undermine the honor and dignity of Egypt and its people” in a manner sowing sedition and spreading lies.
The official said no investigation into the complaints had started yet. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to journalists. Such complaints, common under Egyptian law, are often shelved until prosecutors decide to start an investigation.
In a statement read during prime time Saturday night, a broadcaster read a statement issued by CBC’s board of directors in which the station sought to distance itself from the views expressed by Youssef on his show called “El-Bernameg,” or “The Program.” The statement appeared to be a reaction to negative feedback from viewers and possibly officials.
The statement noted that the public’s reaction to Youssef’s Friday night show was “largely disapproving.”
“CBC will continue to be supportive of the basics of national sentiment and popular will, and is keen on not using phrases and innuendos that may lead to mocking national sentiment or symbols of the Egyptian state,” the station said.
The station added that it is also committed to freedom of the media.
During Friday’s show, Youssef imitated el-Sisi’s soft-spoken, affectionate way of addressing the public, turning it into a lover’s romantic groove. In one skit, a woman named “the Public” calls into a love advice show raving about the love of her life who saved her from an abusive husband.
“He’s an officer as big as the world,” she coos adoringly, making a pun on a slogan el-Sisi uses in nearly every speech: “Egypt will be big enough to face down the world.” Then she adds, “He does have a sovereign streak.”
One complainant, well-known politician Ahmed el-Fadaly, referred to the skit of the adoring woman, accusing Youssef of portraying Egypt as a “dallying woman who betrays her husband with military men.”
El-Fadaly, who heads an association of young Muslims, also accused the satirist of belittling the armed forces’ efforts to deal with terrorism, and of misrepresenting the popular protests against President Mohammed Morsy as a coup, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Associated Press.
Another complainant, a group called The Campaign for el-Sisi for President, alleged that Youssef had defamed the military and its leadership through sexual innuendos, according to the Youm7 news website.
Youssef used satire to criticize Morsy during his one year in office. Morsy supporters also sued Youssef for insulting the presidency and Islam, leading to his brief detention.
Before returning to the air after four months of absence, Youssef predicted in an article he wrote that he will continue to be pursued legally by his new critics “who allegedly love freedom dearly — when it works in their favor.”
His late-night Friday show caused a stir in a sharply divided country. Since Morsy’s ouster, hundreds have been killed in crackdowns on protesters demanding Morsy’s reinstatement. Attacks by Islamic extremists against security forces and Christians have increased. A nationalist fervor gripping the country has elevated the military to an untouchable status, leaving little tolerance among the public or officials for criticism.
For now, Youssef appears undeterred. After Friday’s show aired, Youssef took to Twitter to remind the public that the show just began: “It is only an episode in a program, people.”