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Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef released on bond

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 5:21 p.m.
REUTERS
Demonstrators shout slogans against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy during a protest on Sunday, March 31, 2013, near the high court as Bassem Youssef (not in picture), the country's best-known satirist, makes his way to the court to appear at the prosecutor's office in Cairo.
A bodyguard secures popular Egyptian television satirist Bassem Youssef, who has come to be known as Egypt's Jon Stewart, as he enters Egypt's state prosecutors office to face accusations of insulting Islam and the country's Islamist leader on Sunday, March 31, 2013, in Cairo.
Egyptian activists shout anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans on Sunday, March 31, 2013, in front of Egypt's state prosecutors office in Cairo.

CAIRO — Political satirist and television personality Bassem Youssef was freed on bond on Sunday after a five-hour interrogation by Egypt's general prosecutor.

Youssef, widely likened to American satirist and “Daily Show” TV host Jon Stewart, is charged with insulting Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, defaming Islam and undermining security.

Opposition figures say the case is the latest effort by Morsy and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood to stifle dissent in the world's most populous Arab nation.

Egypt is considered a key U.S. ally in the region, receiving more than $1 billion annually in aid from the United States. During a visit last month, Secretary of State John Kerry released $250 million in additional aid for Egypt's “future as a democracy.”

Youssef was freed on more than $2,000 bond after turning himself in for questioning. He said a fourth criminal count is pending.

A second comedian, Ali Qandil, has been summoned for questioning. As a guest on Youssef's program, Qandil allegedly insulted Islam by criticizing the performance of sheikhs in prayer, according to Egyptian media.

Youssef, a heart surgeon-turned-comedian, is known for parodies skewering Morsy, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist and political figures.

He arrived for questioning at Egypt's high court wearing an oversized black hat, mocking one Morsy wore in Pakistan to receive an honorary degree. Youssef previously wore the hat and received howls of laughter on his popular TV show, “The Program.”

Several hundred supporters chanted “Bassem!” and waved protest signs outside the court.

“This is not justice,” said fan Hassan Ahmed, 29, a public relations manager. “He is bringing us videos of a bunch of hypocrites, and he shows us the true color of these people. When they get exposed, they arrest him.”

Youssef's arrest chilled political figures, journalists and human rights activists, who say they are under attack and political freedom is threatened.

“This is an escalation — issuing an arrest warrant instead of the usual summoning to investigate is significant,” said Heba Morayef, a Middle East division director of Human Rights Watch. “The minister of justice has appointed an investigative judge specifically to look into cases against (Youssef).”

While being questioned by General Prosecutor Talaat Abdullah, a Morsy appointee, Youssef wrote on Twitter to more than 1.2 million followers: “Officers and lawyers at the general prosecutor's office want to take pictures with me. Maybe that's the reason for the summons.”

That and another message — “No laptop to show evidence against me at prosecutor's office” — were later erased.

Morayef speculated that Youssef's fame will protect him.

“I can't imagine him in the cage,” she said, referring to metal courtroom enclosures for defendants.

“But this illustrates what is happening to other journalists,” Morayef said. “At least 17 journalists have been questioned or had charges filed against them of insulting the president. At least 20 journalists and lawyers have been questioned on charges of insulting the judiciary.”

Morayef said the arrests are “a clear intention” to silence critics, and she compared it with repressive measures by the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists accused Morsy's government of an “offensive against journalists.” As an example, it cited the recent arrest of Internet blogger Ala'a Abde Fattah for inciting “aggression” against the Brotherhood.

Outside the court, photographer Ashraf Abdelwahab, 52, held a pink sign supporting Youssef.

He said the comedian was targeted for “speaking honestly.”

“They won't allow anyone to speak the truth in this country,” Abdelwahab said.

Betsy Hiel is the foreign correspondent for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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