Egyptian government arrests comedian in dissent crackdown

Bassem Youssef was arrested for allegedly disturbing public peace and security. (Source: CNN)
Bassem Youssef was arrested for allegedly disturbing public peace and security. (Source: CNN)

(CNN) - The arrest of a prominent Egyptian comedian and TV personality, Bassem Youssef, is drawing international attention.

Critics worldwide are citing Youssef's case as evidence that Egypt's new government isn't sincere in what it says about free speech.

More than two-dozen Egyptians have been investigated on charges of insulting the president and Islam since President Mohamed Morsi came to power - according to cases documented by rights groups. They say, unless the laws change, that number will grow.

The talk show host is now under investigation for allegedly disturbing public peace and security, on top of recent charges of insulting Morsi and Islam.

In an interview with CNN's Christian Amanpour on Monday, Youssef remained defiant.

"I'm just going to continue, continue with the show, continue with the same high tone of the show. We aren't going to back down. We are not going to relax. We are going to have fun doing it as usual," he said.

Youssef's case is grabbing international attention, with the U.S. State Department among those voicing concern, and not just about Youssef's case:

"This, coupled with recent arrest warrants issued for other political activists, is evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression," Victoria Nuland, State Dept. spokesperson, said.

Youssef's satirical show is similar to Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, and Stewart came to the comedian's defense during a recent program:

"By the way, without Bassem and all those journalists, bloggers and brave protesters who went to Tahrir to voice dissent, you, President Morsi, wouldn't be in a position to repress them."

The U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted a link to that Daily Show episode, prompting a swift reaction from the president's office, which said, "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

But human rights groups say the actions of Egyptian authorities have been inappropriate - and at odds with what Morsi told CNN's Wolf Blitzer earlier this year, when he said Bassem Youssef, Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei … "are Egyptians. They are part of my family from Egypt. There is no way any harm can befall them because of their opinions or personal opposition."

The president maintains the arrests aren't his decision, but rather, the judiciary's. Rights groups, though, disagree.

"I think there is a clear intention on the part of President Morsi and the ruling Freedom and Justice Party to limit free speech to limit free media," Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch said. "If President Morsi wanted to stop this crackdown on the media that we are seeing, tomorrow he could do so because his party, the Freedom and Justice Party, controls the legislature, and they could amend the penal code tomorrow and decriminalize defamation."

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