Caustic Egyptian comic gets thrown off the air

A private news channel suspended one of Egypt’s most popular programs, a satirical show modeled after Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” minutes before it was supposed to air Friday, sending chills in a nation fearing increased suppression of expression under its transitional military-led government.

Just two days earlier, the government held its first court hearing as part of an investigation against Bassem Youssef, the host of “El-Bernameg,” or “The Program” in Arabic, after an Islamic youth group charged he had insulted the military, the state and the 2011 uprising during his last show a week ago. The show was his first since the July 3 ousting of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, and Youssef took jabs at the military, Morsi’s supporters and the Muslim Brotherhood, the secret organization through which Morsi ascended to the presidency.

Viewers of Youssef’s show were filled with anticipation Friday about whether Youssef would continue to go after the popular military. Instead, minutes before the show was set to start at 10 p.m., the channel announced the show had been suspended.

How the government approached Youssef and his provocative show has become a litmus test for how Egypt and its military would support freedom of expression, once a key demand of the 2011 uprising that led to the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

But since Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian public has increasingly supported a military that has reverted back to its past practices, including a crackdown on Islamists and those who question the practices of the state.

Youssef’s show had been on hiatus since July, when the military ousted Morsi. In his return show Friday, Youssef mocked supporters of de facto leader Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and those who worship him as Egypt’s new great leader.

The show featured an interview with a pastry shop owner who’s now selling sweets covered with pictures of el-Sissi. In one skit, a woman mockingly called into a show seeking advice about her love affair with a soldier who saved her from her abusive husband, a reference to el-Sissi as the savior and Morsi as the abuser. Those features were among the bases for this week’s investigation.

A popular Egyptian blogger, who goes by the name Big Pharaoh, said in a tweet that he attended Wednesday’s taping and that Youssef did not go after el-Sissi but rather took on the Egyptian media, including CBC.

CBC, the private news channel that airs Youssef’s show, is believed to be aligned with the military and its decision to oust an increasingly unpopular Morsi.

A broadcaster read a statement before the show saying “El-Bernameg” had been suspended for violating the channel’s policy.

The channel’s board of directors asked Youssef and his producer to follow company policy of not violating “editorial policy,” the broadcaster said.

Whether the suspension was related to the charges or internal policy was ancillary in a nation struggling with how to protect freedom of expression as it reverts to the practices and laws of the past.

During the taping, there were clashes outside the downtown studio between those who support the program and those who believed Youssef’s satire had gone too far in his last show.

It was unclear how long the suspension would last. There were reports Friday night that the show would appear on YouTube instead.

Youssef was in the United Arab Emirates and had no immediate reaction to the suspension. CBC replaced his program Friday with “Arabs Got Talent.”

It was the second example on Friday of the government cracking down on those who question it. A journalist of the al Watan newspaper was sentenced to a year in prison for impersonating an officer, though it was unclear whether he was working at the time he was charged. The newspaper, however, called the sentence a “dangerous precedent.”

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed from Cairo.