Egypt president's party blasts US on TV satirist

HAMZA HENDAWI
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 in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, March 31, 2013. Government opponents said the warrant against such a high profile figure, known for lampooning President Mohammed Morsi and the new Islamist political class, was an escalation in a campaign to intimidate critics. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
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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 in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, March 31, 2013. Government opponents said the warrant against such a high profile figure, known for lampooning President Mohammed Morsi and the new Islamist political class, was an escalation in a campaign to intimidate critics. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO (AP) — The Egyptian president's Freedom and Justice Party on Tuesday sharply dismissed U.S. criticism of the investigation of a popular TV satirist, calling it a "blatant intervention" in Egypt's internal affairs.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Monday that the interrogation of Bassem Youssef along with arrest warrants issued against five anti-government activists for inciting unrest underlined a "disturbing trend" of growing restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt.

Nuland also said the U.S. administration was concerned that the Egyptian government has "been slow" or didn't "adequately" investigate cases of attacks against anti-Morsi protesters, journalists and police brutality. "So there does not seem to be an even handed application of justice here," she said.

She spoke a day after Youssef, who ridicules Morsi and hardline clerics on his weekly TV show, was released on bail following hours of questioning over accusations he insulted Morsi, an Islamist, and Islam. Both are considered crimes in Egypt according to longstanding laws.

Morsi's party said it received Nuland's comments with "extreme reservation" and that they would inevitably be interpreted by Egyptians as a U.S. endorsement of the contempt of religious practices by some in the Egyptian media.

"The comments by the American spokeswoman give 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," it said in a statement. "If proven, this contempt constitutes a grave breach of the law, customs, social and cultural constants in the Egyptian society."

The statement 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. Its contention that Youssef is primarily guilty of contempt to Islam rather than insulting Morsi is likely designed to appeal to the extreme sensitivity most Egyptian Muslims show toward any hint of criticism of their faith.

Youssef, who models his style on Jon Stewart's, 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."

A trained surgeon who started his program online during the 2011 popular uprising that toppled Mubarak, Youssef said he would not be intimidated by the legal proceedings against him or the prospect of going to jail if convicted.

"I'm not intimidated. I'm just exhausted by this. So, I'm not going to let this drain me, I'm just going to continue with the show, with the same high tone of the show, we're not going to back down, and actually we're not going to relax. We're just going to have fun doing it, as usual," he said.

The questioning of Youssef and the warrants against the activists come amid the latest bout of unrest to roil Egypt in the two years since Mubarak's ouster as the country appears more divided at any time in living memory.

Morsi came to office in June as the country's first freely elected president, but the nine months he has been in office saw the country plunging deeper into an economic crisis, surging crime rates and a seemingly endless series of protests and strikes.

Morsi 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.