President Mohamed Mursi’s Islamist allies accused the United States of blatant interference in Egypt’s affairs after Washington said Cairo was muzzling freedom of speech.
On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland criticized the questioning of the most popular Egyptian television satirist over allegations that he insulted Mursi and Islam.
Bassem Youssef, who rose to fame with a satirical online show after the uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power in 2011, turned himself in on Sunday after the prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for the comedian, Reuters reports.
The Justice and Freedom Party, political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the comments from Nuland and said the government was committed to freedom of expression. “Nuland’s statements are … blatantly interfering in Egypt’s internal affairs,” a party statement said.
In Washington, Nuland said her remarks on Monday represented the views of the U.S. government and “we stand by those views as articulated here yesterday.”
“Our point here yesterday was to say that rule of law needs to be applied appropriately in all circumstances,” she told reporters at her daily news briefing.
“So no, we reject the notion that we were interfering.”
Youssef, whose program is now on television and has been compared to U.S. satirist Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”, is accused of insulting Islam and undermining Mursi’s standing.
The prosecutor general issued the warrant after at least four legal complaints filed by supporters of Mursi, an Islamist who was freely elected in June.
In what seemed a gesture of defiance, Youssef arrived at the prosecutor general’s office wearing an oversized graduation hat modeled on one donned by Mursi when he was awarded an honorary degree in Pakistan in March. He was later released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,200).
Nuland said on Monday Egyptian authorities seemed to be selectively prosecuting those accused of insulting the government while ignoring or playing down attacks on anti-government protesters and cases of “extreme police brutality”.
The U.S. view is important in part because Washington provides $1.3 billion per year in military aid to Cairo.
Egypt has been in a state of political turmoil since the ouster of Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally. Political uncertainty and growing street crime have deterred tourism, long an important driver of the Egyptian economy.