Egypt says it's committed to freedom of expression
Egypt's Islamist government is "strongly committed" to freedom of expression, a presidential spokesman insisted Wednesday, distancing the administration from legal proceedings against a popular comedian.
The London-based Amnesty International, however, warned in a statement of an "alarming new escalation of politically-motivated judicial harassment and arrests" in Egypt.
Presidential spokesman Omar Amer said, "The presidency did not submit any complaints" to the prosecutor's office.
The case of the comedian, questioned this week over accusations he insulted the president and Islam on his weekly TV show, has set off a wave of criticism from as far away as Washington.
Amer said President Mohammed Morsi's office was not involved in the investigation.
"Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution, and there is a strong commitment toward it and there will be no deviation from that," he said.
Amer's comments echoed a statement issued by Morsi's office late Tuesday. It said it recognizes the "importance of freedom of expression and fully respects press freedom."
The complaints against satirist Bassem Youssef, the statement pointed out, were filed by "citizens." Youssef was released on bail after questioning.
Youssef's interrogation, as well as arrest warrants against five anti-government activists on charges of inciting unrest, have prompted Morsi's opponents to warn of a campaign to intimidate critics.
A guest comedian who appeared on Youssef's show, "El-Bernameg" Arabic for "The Program," was also questioned Wednesday about jokes he made in a recent episode where he mocked people who built mosques just to evade real estate taxes, and who shouted out their religiosity. Ali Qandil was called up in connection to Youssef's case, and he was released on bail pending investigation, said lawyer Ahmed Ezzat, who attended the interrogation.
Ezzat said in a separate case, blogger Ahmed Anwar from the Delta province of Gharbiya was sent to trial next month on charges of insulting the police. The charges against Anwar stems from a video he created and posted online showing police officers dancing, and mocking official ceremonies honoring police officers.
Anwar's satirical video is a criticism of the impunity enjoyed by the police force, whose reform was one of the main demands of the uprising that forced former leader Hosni Mubarak to step down in 2011. Activists and rights groups say police abuse continue after the uprising.
Ezzat said Anwar's trial begins in May where he could face up to three years on charges of insulting a public office, and misusing social media.
In its statement, Amnesty said the crackdown on freedom of expression have affected 33 people in the last two weeks.
The group charged that some of those facing trials have been targeted for their criticism of the Morsi government, including prominent blogger Alaa Abdel-Fattah and his sister Mona Seif, who advocate for the rights of protesters and detained activists. Both are facing trial in May for charges of burning the office of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq.
Those who were affected by the recent charges also include politician and lawyer Hamdi el-Fakharany, who was arrested on March 26 and is facing charges of inciting violence. He was released after paying a hefty bail of more than $7,000.
Amnesty said el-Fakarany's complaints that he was beaten by pro-Morsi supporters in earlier protests were not investigated.
Some 13 people detained last week in Alexandria, including lawyers, and accused of insulting police officials, and attempting to break into a police station. They have since been released but investigations continue.
"We are seeing arrests and charges for literally nothing more than cracking a few jokes. This is a truly alarming sign of the government's increasing intolerance of any criticism whatsoever," said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "The government is seriously redoubling its efforts to stamp out freedom of expression."
The deputy chief prosecutor, Hassan Yassin, did not respond to a call seeking comment.
The Obama administration has expressed concern that Egypt may be backsliding in its transition to democracy. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that Washington has "real concerns about the direction Egypt appears to be moving in," adding that Egypt is at a "tipping point."
Amer denied that there was tension between Egypt and the United States.