CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top prosecutor on Monday ordered an investigation into a complaint that alleges satirist Bassem Youssef, known as the country's Jon Stewart, harmed national interests by ridiculing the country's military in his TV program.
The decision by chief prosecutor Hesham Barakat, announced in a statement by his office, could be a prelude to further action against Youssef such as questioning and a possible trial. On the other hand, the investigation could exonerate Youssef and lead to the complaints against him being shelved.
For many Egyptians, whatever happens to Youssef will answer the question of whether the government installed by the military after the ouster of the Islamist president in a July 3 coup is serious about shepherding the country toward democracy and freedom. Liberals who backed removing the Islamist Mohammed Morsi already are unhappy with what they see as a possible return to the human rights abuses and police brutality of Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule.
In an example of what some say is intolerance for dissent, a kung fu gold medalist has been suspended by the sport's national federation because he displayed an Islamist symbol showing support for Morsi during a tournament in Russia.
The newspaper Al-Ahram's online service posted a photo of Mohammed Youssef wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of an open palm with four yellow fingers — the symbol commemorating a pro-Morsi protest camp violently cleared by security forces in August. In the photo, the athlete held his gold medal with his right hand while punching the air with a clenched left fist during the medal ceremony. He was sent home early from Russia and would be banned from a major tournament next month in Malaysia.
Several complaints were filed against Youssef, the comedian, after he mocked the pro-military fervor gripping Egypt in his first program of the season last week. Youssef also took jabs at the powerful military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, lionized in the local media after leading a July 3 coup that ousted the Islamist president.
Making matters worse for the comedian, the private TV station that airs the program sought to distance itself from the comedian.
Youssef's only public comment on the complaints came on Friday after the show was aired. "It is only an episode in a program, people," he wrote on his Twitter account.
Monday's statement by the chief prosecutor's office said the complaint it chose to investigate accused Youssef of disturbing the peace, harming public interests, creating chaos, sowing sedition and threatening social security and peace. It also alleges that Bassem inappropriately ridiculed the Egyptian people, the armed forces as well as all "honorable national icons" without respect for traditions and customs.
During Friday's show, Youssef imitated el-Sissi's soft-spoken, affectionate way of addressing the public, turning it into a lover's romantic groove. In one skit, a woman named "the Public" calls into a love advice show raving about the love of her life who saved her from an abusive husband.
"He's an officer as big as the world," she coos adoringly, making a pun on a slogan el-Sissi uses in nearly every speech: "Egypt will be big enough to face down the world." Then she adds, "He does have a sovereign streak."
Youssef ruthlessly ridiculed Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and their Islamist allies during the ousted leader's one year in office. Then, Morsi supporters also sued Youssef for insulting the presidency and Islam. He was questioned for hours by prosecutors, but was not charged with any crime.
Before returning to the air after a four-month absence, Youssef predicted in an article that he will continue to be pursued legally by his new critics "who allegedly love freedom dearly — when it works in their favor."
Morsi's ouster was followed by a large-scale crackdown on his Brotherhood in which hundreds have been killed and at least 2,000 members jailed. Morsi's supporters, in the meantime, have been staging near-daily protests across much of Egypt to demand his reinstatement. The number of participants in these protests has steadily dwindled, although they occasionally attract thousands.
Detained and held at an undisclosed location since July 3, Morsi is scheduled to go on trial on Nov. 4 for allegedly inciting supporters to kill protesters outside his presidential palace in Cairo last December.
The harsh crackdown, Morsi's upcoming trial and the street protests have further divided Egypt, roiled by turmoil and violence since Mubarak's 2011 overthrow in a popular uprising. The liberals who backed his ouster are up against a much larger camp that vehemently supports the army and police, saying excesses by the military and security forces are a small price to pay if the country is to defeat what they view as Brotherhood-inspired terrorism.
About two dozen members of that larger camp staged an anti-Youssef protest on Monday outside a courthouse in downtown Cairo, trampling on posters of the comedians and chanting slogans in support of el-Sissi. One woman among the protesters said Youssef should be tried before a military tribunal.
Islamic militants have stepped up their campaign of violence since Morsi's ouster, mainly targeting Egyptian police and soldiers, especially in the volatile northern part of the Sinai Peninsula that borders Israel and the Gaza Strip.
The militants' campaign mostly has been confined to the troubled peninsula that is separated from the mainland by the Suez Canal, but attacks outside Sinai have grown more frequent in recent weeks.
On Monday, gunmen killed three policemen at a security checkpoint in Mansoura, a city north of Cairo, according to the Interior Ministry. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the shootings, but such attacks are typical for militants opposed to Egypt's military-backed government.