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.
The complaint was prompted when the guest, Shaimaa Abulkhair, a consultant with the New York-based CPJ, criticized the case against Youssef.
Morsi's office issued a statement late Tuesday denying that it was behind the prosecution's moves, noting that the prosecution is independent. "The presidency underlines its complete respect for freedom of the expression and the press," the statement said. "All citizens have the right to expression without the restrictions that existed before the revolution" while "respecting the law."
Information Minister Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud said the complaints against Youssef's show came from private citizens concerned over the prestige of Egypt's first freely elected president.
"Some of it (Bassem Youssef's criticism) is permissible. And some isn't. Some of it contradicts the morals of Egyptian society," Abdel-Maqsoud, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a TV interview, professing his commitment to freedom of expression.
The government Investment Authority, which grants operating licenses to private TV networks, threatened to revoke the license of the CBC network that airs Youssef's show over what it called the show's violations of standards.
It said it has received complaints that in his program – titled "El-Bernameg," Arabic for "The Program" – Youssef ridiculed and insulted "symbols of the nation and prominent figures" and used sexual innuendos and indecent language. It said these acts violated rules against airing material not conforming with society's values and objectivity and warned that it would consider revoking the license if "the causes of the violations are not eliminated."
Bassem's show, aired every Friday, is preceded by a warning that it may contain "unsuitable content" and that it is only for viewers over the age of 18.
A heart surgeon, Youssef started his program online during the 2011 popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. Since then he has become a sharp critic of Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists – though he also regularly jibes against opposition figures as well.
In his questioning, Youssef was asked about an episode in which a guest comedian mocked people who build mosques just to escape real estate taxes – apparently one basis for the "insulting Islam" charge, according to Abulkhair, who attended the questioning.
He was also asked about a show in which he satirized a TV interview by Morsi on the night of the Oscar awards ceremony. In the bit, Youssef awarded Morsi a "best actor" prize for seeming to evade questions and gave the interview itself "best montage" for several visible cuts and edits.
Youssef was released on bail Sunday after the questioning while prosecutors decide whether to pursue charges.
In its reply Tuesday to the U.S. State Department, the Brotherhood's party said it received Nuland's comments with "extreme reservation."
It said Nuland gave the impression that "the issue is to do with insulting the president when in fact the core of the complaints is to do with contempt for the Muslim faith and ridicule of religious practices."
"If proven, this contempt constitutes a grave breach of the law, customs, social and cultural constants in the Egyptian society," the party said in a statement.
It made no mention of Nuland's comment on the slow pace of investigation into cases of attacks against anti-Morsi protesters and reporters or police brutality. Critics have said the addition of the insulting Islam charge against Youssef likely aims to taint him in the eyes of Egyptian Muslims.
Nuland dismissed the party's criticism, saying her comments reflected the U.S. government's position.
"Our point here yesterday 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 no, we reject the notion that we were interfering," she said.
Youssef denies the charges of contempt for religion.
"Islam is a wonderful religion, it's a great and peaceful religion," Youssef, a Muslim himself, told CNN this week. "There are some people who claim to be the sole (representatives) of Islam; they are actually giving a bad image, and they're basically insulting the image of Islam."
The moves against Youssef and the activists come amid an intense polarization in the country between Morsi's Islamist backers and his opponents. Morsi's nine months in office has seen the country plunging deeper into an economic crisis, surging crime rates and a seemingly endless series of protests, strikes and deadly riots.
The Egyptian leader accuses the media and politicians he has not named of inciting violence and charged that foreign powers, which again he has not named, of meddling in the country's internal affairs. Islamist supporters of the president have increasingly called for action against the media, at one point holding a sit-in outside of TV network studios.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists called the escalation of anti-press "rhetoric" by Morsi and his supporters "deeply troubling."
One of Youssef's attorneys, Gamal Eid, said his case fits into a widening campaign against government critics, media personalities, and activists, saying "the prosecution has become a tool to go after the regime's opposition and intimidate it."
Associated Press reporters Amir Makar in Cairo and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to his report.