Egypt steps up campaign against TV satirist, threatens to close station airing his program

CAIRO — Egyptian authorities on Tuesday stepped up a campaign against a popular TV comedian accused of insulting the president, threatening to revoke the license of a private TV station that airs his weekly program and angrily dismissing U.S. criticism of legal proceedings against him.

The satirist, Bassem Youssef, was questioned by state prosecutors earlier this week over accusations that he insulted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and Islam. On his Jon Stewart-inspired show, Youssef frequently satirizes everything from the president’s policies to his mannerisms, as well as hardline Islamic clerics, while highlighting contradictions in their comments.

The questioning of Youssef, along with arrest warrants issued days earlier against five anti-government activists on charges of inciting unrest, have raised warnings by opponents of Morsi of a campaign to intimidate his critics. A new case was opened Tuesday, with prosecutors looking into whether participants in a talk show on another private channel who criticized the Youssef case “endangered national security.”

Morsi’s supporters deny any campaign, saying prosecutors are merely enforcing the law and insisting that Youssef has crossed the line with his mockery.

The Youssef case turned into a side spat with Washington after U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on Monday spoke of a “disturbing trend” of growing restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt, pointing to the questioning of Youssef and the arrest warrants.

“There does not seem to be an evenhanded application of justice here,” Nuland added, saying the Egyptian government has been slow to investigate police brutality or attacks on anti-Morsi protesters and journalists.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party denounced Nuland’s comments as “blatant interference” in Egypt’s internal affairs.

Morsi’s office joined in, criticizing the U.S. Embassy in Cairo after it tweeted a link to Monday night’s episode of The Daily Show, in which host Stewart came to the defense of Youssef and criticized the Egyptian president, saying it was undemocratic to prosecute the Egyptian comic.

Replying to the embassy on Twitter, the presidency wrote, “It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry widened the criticism, warning that Egypt is at a “tipping point.” He told reporters Tuesday, “It is our hope that there is still time to be able to turn the corner. Recent arrests, the violence in the streets, the lack of inclusivity with respect to the opposition -- in public ways to make a difference to the people of Egypt - are all of concern today.” Kerry added that the U.S. is not supporting one man or one party of Egyptians; rather, “the dreams that they have tried to put into reality through their election and through their faith in the democratic process.”

Meanwhile, Egypt’s top prosecutor, a Morsi appointee, asked state security prosecutors to investigate the head of another private TV network, ONTV, a presenter of a show on the network and a phone-in guest to the show over complaints they “disturbed public security” and insulted the judiciary, the state daily Al-Ahram and the Committee to Protect Journalists said.

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