An American TV humor show was at the center of a diplomatic dust-up between the United States and Egypt this week.
It all started when Egyptian authorities arrested Bassem Youssef, a TV political satirist known as “Jon Stewart of Egypt” last week. He was questioned on suspicion of insulting Islam and belittling Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
So Youssef’s American role model, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, came to his defense and lambasted Egyptian President Morsi over the arrest during the program Monday night.
Stewart talked about problems in Egypt following the Arab Spring uprisings that began two years ago, problems such as attacks on women, high unemployment, and crumbling infrastructure. Then the American comedian asked if Youssef had been sabotaging Egypt’s infrastructure, or harassing Egyptian women on the streets, or causing Egypt’s unemployment.
After the program, someone at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo linked to the Stewart show on the embassy’s official Twitter feed.
Within hours, the Egyptian president’s office tweeted back to the Embassy, “It is inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda.”
The questioning of Youssef, along with arrest warrants issued days earlier against five anti-government activists on charges of inciting unrest, raised concerns among the opposition in Egypt that Morsi had begun a campaign to intimidate them.
Morsi’s supporters say there is no such campaign and the president’s office issued a statement late Tuesday denying that it was behind the arrest warrants. “The presidency underlines its complete respect for freedom of the expression and the press,” the statement said.
Youssef is now free on $2,200 bail after being interrogated for five hours.
He tweeted on Monday: “A new complaint against me has been referred to state security prosecution, for spreading rumors and false news, and disturbing public tranquility after the last episode.”
The problems between U.S. and Egyptian diplomats began even before the Jon Stewart show Monday night. Earlier that day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described Youssef’s questioning as “evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression” in Egypt.
“There does not seem to be an evenhanded application of justice here,” Ms. Nuland said, adding that the Egyptian government had been slow to investigate other cases of suspected police brutality and attacks on anti-Morsi protesters and journalists.
Morsi’s conservative Islamic Freedom and Justice Party denounced Nuland’s comments as “blatant interference” in Egypt’s internal affairs. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood then joined in by saying in its Twitter account on Tuesday that the U.S. government “is welcoming and condoning defamation of religion.”
Ms. Nuland answered back saying her comments reflected the U.S. government’s position.
“Our point was to say that rule of law needs to be applied appropriately in all circumstances. It’s the same point that we make with regard to countries around the world. So, we reject the notion that we were interfering,” she said.