A senior State Department official raised concern Monday that “freedom of expression is being stifled” in Egypt, where recent days saw authorities detain and question a popular television comedian on charges of insulting Islam and the nation’s former Muslim Brotherhood president.
While talk-show host Bassem Youssef — often described as Egypt’s version of U.S. comedian Jon Stewart — has been released from custody, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland described his brief detention over the weekend as “disturbing.”
“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,” Mrs. Nuland told reporters at the State Department.
“There does not seem to be an even-handed application of justice here,” said Mrs. Nuland.
She said Egyptian authorities appeared to be pouncing on cases such as Mr. Youssef’s while being “slow or inadequate in investigating” other matters, such as complaints about restrictions on journalists and investigations of attacks on demonstrators outside the Egyptian presidential palace in December 2012.
While the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has for months faced criticism from secular and liberal activists over the government’s posture on religious freedom and treatment of opposition figures, Mr. Youssef’s case has made international headlines.
According to media reports, more than two dozen complaints were filed against the comedian under an Egyptian law that once allowed former dictator Hosni Mubarak to crack down on citizens accused of ridiculing his government.
Mr. Youssef, who has gained prominence as a talk-show host since the revolution that ousted Mr. Mubarak from power in 2011, has a reputation of making fun of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership that arose after Mr. Mubarak’s fall.
According to a report by the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Youssef has portrayed Mr. Morsi as a pharaoh prone to verbal gaffes, such as when the new president spoke out against drunken driving by saying, “Gas and alcohol don’t mix.”
The newspaper also reported that after Mr. Morsi granted himself sweeping powers in November, Mr. Youssef dubbed him “Super Morsi” and “Morsi, the unifier of authorities,” a play on the president’s inability to unify Egyptians.
“Sometimes I get beaten,” Mr. Youssef deadpanned in response.
But he quickly added: “No, no, no. Just kidding.”
“Actually, it’s been quite all right,” Mr. Youssef said. “We broke ground in television programming because now people say, ‘Ahh, oh, he actually says what we want to say.’ And we’re trying to be funny.”