Egypt issues arrest warrant for TV satirist

CAIRO: Egypt’s state prosecutors issued an arrest warrant Saturday for a popular television satirist for allegedly insulting Islam and the country’s president, in the latest legal action to take aim at a critic of the nation’s Islamist leader.

The warrant against Bassem Youssef is also the latest in a series of legal actions against the comedian, who has come to be known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart. Youssef’s widely-watched weekly show, “ElBernameg” or The Program, has become a platform for lampooning the government, opposition, media and clerics.

The fast-paced show has attracted a wide viewership, but has also earned itself its fair share of detractors. Youssef has been a frequent target of lawsuits, most of them brought by Islamist lawyers who have accused him of “corrupting morals” or violating “religious principles.”

The comedian has faced several court cases in the past, also accusing him of insulting President Mohammed Morsi. One of Youssef’s attorneys, Gamal Eid, said this is the first time an arrest warrant has been issued for the comedian.

In a post on his official Twitter account, Youssef said he will hand himself in to the prosecutor’s office Sunday. He then added, with his typical sarcasm: “Unless they kindly send a police van today and save me the transportation hassle.”

Eid said the warrant fits into a widening campaign against government critics, media personalities, and activists.

“The prosecution has become a tool to go after the regime’s opposition and intimidate it,” Eid said.

A call to a top aide to the country’s chief prosecutor, Hassan Yassin, for comment went unanswered.

Opposition figures have expressed concerns about freedom of expression and assembly for what they call a crackdown on dissent at a time of deep polarization in Egypt’s politics.

The political standoff pits Morsi, a Brotherhood veteran, and his Islamist allies in one camp against a mostly secular and liberal opposition backed by moderate Muslims, minority Christians and a large segment of women in the other.

The opposition charges that Morsi and the Brotherhood have failed to tackle any of the nation’s most pressing problems and are trying to monopolize power, and breaking promises of inclusiveness. Morsi blames the country’s woes on nearly three decades of corruption under his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, and accuses the opposition of stoking unrest for political gain.

On Monday, Egypt’s top state prosecutor, Talaat Abdullah, issued arrest warrants for five of Egypt’s most prominent democracy advocates and activists over allegations that they instigated violence last week near the Brotherhood’s headquarters in Cairo.

It was one of the worst bouts of violence in months, where nearly 200 people were injured in clashes between anti-government protesters and supporters of the Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails.

Morsi harshly criticized his opponents, calling them hired thugs out to derail Egypt’s democracy. The Brotherhood also blamed privately-owned media for fanning the violence.

The criticism was followed by a two-day protest by dozens of Islamists outside the studios of TV networks critical of Morsi. The Islamist protesters pelted police and prevented some talk show hosts and guests from going in and out of the complex west of Cairo.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the escalation of anti-press “rhetoric” by Morsi and his supporters and the sit-in outside the media city were “deeply troubling.”

The series of prosecutions and arrest warrants come amid a legal challenge to the general prosecutor, whose appointment by Morsi last year was declared void by a court ruling earlier this week.

On Saturday, Egypt’s chief prosecutor Talaat Abdullah said he will appeal the court ruling, saying it is “in violation of the constitution and the law,” Egypt’s state news agency reported. The decision signals a protracted legal battle is likely to ensue, further confusing the legal scene in Egypt.

Already some, including members of the journalist union, have declared they no longer recognize the legitimacy of the prosecutor’s decision.