Bassem Youssef Accused of Insulting the President; A Response to a Friend

Dec 23

Apparently, a lawyer somewhere in Egypt filed a complaint with a prosecutor accusing the Egyptian political satirist, Bassem Youssef, with “insulting the President.” I had previously used the fact that Bassem Youssef’s show is even on the air as evidence that Egypt today cannot reasonably be considered a dictatorship, or at a minimum, that it is substantially more free, at least with respect to political expression, than it was in the Mubarak-era.  My friend then used this as a “classic gotcha moment”  This was what I said to my dear friend (meant seriously) in reply:

“This report raises several issues.  First, an Egyptian statutory law which makes insulting the President a legal offense.  I would think that there is good reason to think that a judge might think that this crime is either now unconstitutional, or it must be read in such a way that it does not cover legitimate (or even illegitimate) political speech.  I think you are aware of the fact that certain kinds of speech restrictions, e.g., libel and slander, are consistent with democracy, and that even in the US, with the vast latitude we have, public figures still enjoy some right to a reputation. One little noticed provision of the new constitution (and one which Khaled Fahmy criticized) was that it allowed all courts to consider constitutional questions. This means that, if Bassem Youssef were actually charged with anything (something that does not seem to have occurred as of yet), he could raise a defense of unconstitutionality before the trial judge, something that must be deemed to be an improvement in the rights of the criminal defendant, relative the status quo ante, which forced all constitutional claims to be heard only by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Second, and I think this is a particularly serious concern which on more than one occasion has thrown a money wrench into the transition, and that is the apparent ability of any crazy person to file a complaint with any local prosecutor’s office in the country.  This is another reason why the ability to bring criminal complaints needs to be consolidated in the Executive Branch, so that there is effective responsibility for law enforcement.

Third, as the work of Tamir Moustafa and Nathan Brown have both shown, the most authoritarian provisions of Egyptian law are buried in its statutory provisions, not in the 1971 Constitution. We have nearly gone to civil war over a constitution which is perfectly adequate for the immediate task at hand, namely, reforming and rebuilding the train wreck that passes for a country when what we really need is thorough review of the numerous authoritarian statutes sill on the books and replacing them with democratic ones.  That will take years and we need serious people from all sides of the constitutional debate to work on this together.

Fourth, I don’t watch Bassem Youssef regularly, simply because I don’t have the time, but while I enjoy good political humor, it is symptomatic, I think, of a more disturbing trend in Egyptian politics among non-Islamists: the substitution of sarcastic wit for positive political action.  The fact is that it is much easier to replicate John Stewart than the institutionalized presence of the Democratic Party. I would be much more impressed with evidence of that taking place — because that is much more crucial to the long-term viability of an Egyptian democracy — than I am  from clever political humor, even if I enjoy it.  This is part of the much larger problem our experience of modernity as consumers rather than producers.

Fifth, and I guess I will stop with this one, can we please have a reality check? A major Egyptian news editor, Ibrahim Isa maybe, I can’t remember his name, was imprisoned during the last years of Mubarak for simply saying that the man was sick!  Here,we have a guy apparently using sexual satire to lampoon the President, and not only is he walking about freely, he is probably earning some good money.  So let’s get real.  Egypt will not be Canada in my lifetime.  For God’s sake, it won’t even be the UK :), but it is already much better than I could have reasonably expected in the summer of 2008 when I experienced a people that was dead.

Political change is difficult in the best of circumstances, and it is not at all part of political wisdom to deny the progress that has been made and that more progress can yet be made if people are willing to stop being sore losers.  I am already seeing tweets by “revolutionaries” expressing their intent to bring down the regime. Can we say that it’s time for the NSF to condemn these groups explicitly and say what is obvious to all: this is not the constitution we wanted, but it is markedly better than what we had before the revolution, and we intend to work 24/7 to improve this country and prove to the majority of Egyptians we deserve their trust?  Instead, respectable people are asking the EU to cut off loans to Egypt?  That is patriotic?

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