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Egyptian Government Investigates Comedian Bassem Youssef; Pope Francis as Non-Traditionalist

Aired April 3, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

Tonight, two comedians are at the heart of a diplomatic incident, a war of alarming words between Egypt and the United States.

It all began earlier this week, when an arrest warrant was issued for Bassem Youssef, a comedian who's known as Egypt's Jon Stewart. He was a guest on this program just after he'd been interrogated for five hours by Egypt's chief prosecutor on charges of insulting Islam and President Mohammed Morsi.


BASSEM YOUSSEF, EGYPTIAN SATIRIST: So basically we were going through the punch lines that were considered by others as an insult to the president or as some sort of being in contempt to the Islamic religion. So we were basically answering questions, line by line, phrase by phrase and joke by joke.


AMANPOUR: Youssef describing for me his interrogation and also denying the government's charges.

Meanwhile, the real Jon Stewart, the American comedian, immediately took up Youssef's cause, directly addressing President Morsi on his TV program.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": What are you worried about, Mr. President of Egypt? The power of satire to overthrow the status quo? I've been doing this crapfest for 15 years.


STEWART: Granted, I'm not as popular as Bassem, but we've had our nights.

And just so you know, there's been a grand total of zero toppled governments we've brought about during that time.



AMANPOUR: Meantime, the hapless U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted out Stewart's monologue and hey, presto, diplomatic fisticuffs ensued. President Morsi's office tweeted back in anger, "It's inappropriate," the statement said, "for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

And then the Muslim Brotherhood took to Twitter and raised the ante, accusing the United States of insulting Islam. So the U.S. embassy in Cairo took down its Twitter page and only put it back up hours later with the Jon Stewart video scrubbed off. Now you couldn't make this stuff up, but it does go to some very serious issues, which we'll drill down on in a moment.

But first, a look at the other stories we're covering tonight.



AMANPOUR (voice-over): Nuns on the Bus --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We care for the 100 percent and that will secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our nation.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): The sisterhood of the traveling habit speaks out.

And it's called March Madness, crowning America's college basketball champ. But another kind of madness has fans screaming foul.



AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first, Egypt's controversial decision to investigate one of the country's most popular comedians, Bassem Youssef.

And with me now to discuss this are Christopher Dickey, who's the Middle East editor for "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast," and Hossam Bahgat, founder of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. His organization is providing legal assistance to those like Youssef who are accused of blasphemy.

Gentlemen, thank you; welcome to the program.

Let me get straight to the point. Who are the people who are really complaining about Bassem Youssef? The president's office says it's not us.

HOSSAM BAHGAT, FOUNDER, EGYPTIAN INITIATIVE FOR PERSONAL RIGHTS: This is straight out of the Mubarak playbook. That's exactly what he used to do.

It started in 2007 when the president or is party would really get their feelings hurt or get fed up with criticism. They just suddenly look the other way and private citizens emerged out of the blue and say that their own feelings are being hurt by seeing their president being insulted.

AMANPOUR: So what is going on, Chris? Are they trying to put a line in the sand? Are they really intending to send Bassem Youssef to jail?

CHRISTOPHER DICKEY, MIDDLE EAST EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": I doubt that they'll be stupid enough to send Bassem Youssef to jail. But they definitely are trying to draw red lines. They're trying to say, OK, the people can have a little bit of psychological relief with a little bit of satire. But we want to say these are the red lines.

And the big red line, whether it was under Mubarak or under Mohammed Morsi, is the president. You don't insult the president. The president is the republic, and you don't insult him.

Now to say that Morsi is not behind the persecution and prosecution of Bassem Youssef is, I think, nuts. I mean, of course he is, one way or the other.

BAHGAT: In this particular complaint, the president is not at least formally behind it. But informally, might be so.

But the fact is -- and that is missing from the discourse and the statements coming out of the presidency -- the president's resident legal counsel, the office of the president's lawyers, have been filing complaints against a number of journalists since he came to power for insulting him.

AMANPOUR: Well, I was going to bring that up, because it is not isolated to this case. And furthermore, the president says it's not me; it's the prosecutor general. But this is the man who's appointed by him, right?

BAHGAT: Of course. It's the man who was appointed by him in a very controversial move that has been recently the subject of a court ruling that said that his appointment was illegal, in violation of the law. The president is standing behind his own public prosecutor.

And the public prosecutor is, of course, ignoring the mass killings of protesters by Morsi's police, ignoring the torture of Morsi's opponents by members of Morsi's political party outside of the presidential palace since December. And suddenly, moving so quickly and so hastily against the -- this frivolous, manifestly frivolous complaint against a satirist --


DICKEY: (Inaudible) look more like Mubarak all the time.

AMANPOUR: Well, I want to get to the heart of this issue, which is freedom of speech, freedom of the press and what does it mean in this new democratic Egypt?

President Morsi gave an interview to our own Wolf Blitzer in January. Wolf asked him specifically about can the opposition criticize you, criticize the system? Look at this.


MOHAMMED MORSI, PRESIDENT OF EGYPT (through translator): I welcome any criticism. I welcome every opinion. I welcome every view and I push everyone to work.

BLITZER: But just to tie up this issue, Bassem Youssef, Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, they don't have to worry about going to jail?

MORSI (through translator): They are Egyptians; they are part of my family from Egypt. There is no way that any harm can befall them because of their opinions or their personal opposition. There is no possible way to talk about or discuss jails or imprisonment as an option because of political involvement according to the law. There is no possible way to discuss this.


AMANPOUR: I mean, that was three months ago and that was emphatic: no possible way to come down on people like Bassem Youssef.

What does this mean, do you think, Hossam, for freedom of speech, for freedom of expression in the new Egypt?

BAHGAT: One of the very few things -- achievements, really, that this revolution has brought about is that at least we had a space for free press, for the freedom to demonstrate for civil society to operate.

Right now, because everything else is going incredibly badly -- I mean, we have the return of torture. We have the persistence of corruption. We have a failure of government -- of governance and a failure of the political process. We have a constitution that was shoved down people's throats and we have an incredibly polarized and violent society.

Instead of addressing these issues, Morsi and his regime are following again Mubarak's footsteps of going after the press, of pushing in parliament where they have an absolute majority, a very restrictive civil society, law, NGO law (ph) and a very restrictive demonstrations law that would make it impossible to really organize demonstrations.

When you go after the space that is available for dissent and for freedom of expression. You know that this is a regime in trouble.

AMANPOUR: So, Chris, when you look at the reaction from the U.S. embassy, obviously their larger point -- and it was said at the State Department by the spokeswoman, look, this is not what we believe in. We believe in free speech; we believe that all these people you're talking about should not be attacked or abused.

What is the U.S. embassy doing? What is this diplomatic incident by tweeting it out? Was it the appropriate thing to tweet out, the Jon Stewart?

DICKEY: No, I think it was somebody's dumb decision to tweet it out. You know it's going to offend them; they're going to come back. Nothing is really going to change in Egypt because you tweet this out. I mean, who in Egypt is going to be watching Jon Stewart? Not a lot of people. I mean, some people will.

BAHGAT: This particular --


DICKEY: This particular thing that (inaudible). But they -- but essentially that's not going to change anything politically in Egypt. That's almost for an American audience that you do that kind of thing. So that was unwise.

But the embassy is really in a bind because they don't really like the Muslim Brotherhood. But they don't have anybody else to deal with in the government. And they don't want to be in a position where this enormous country, 85 million people, Egypt, the cornerstone of the -- the keystone of the Middle East, is a country that they can't even talk to and get along with.

AMANPOUR: Let me drill down, Hossam, on who are the main complainers. I know we've said the president's office. But it's not just from there, is it? Is it -- is it the extreme Islamists? I mean, some of the Islamic leaders in some of the more established centers like Al-Azhar University are actually saying, hang on; this is a good thing that he's poking fun at those who abuse Islam.

BAHGAT: Absolutely, look, the majority of complaints for insulting the president were formally filed by the office of the president.

Because Bassem is so high-profile, because he has such a huge following, it may be someone decided that it would not look appropriate for the president to file the complaint himself, saying I'm hurt. So suddenly there is another charge that is thrown to the mix, which is the charge of insulting Islam, again, word for word (inaudible) --


AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) who are jumping on this bandwagon? No.

BAHGAT: No, no, absolutely, no, it's just a private citizen said that, you know, by criticizing the Salafi or religious channels and their discourse, this is an insult to Islam.

AMANPOUR: So Bassem, of course, said to me that I'm not criticize Islam. What I'm doing is holding those people who are distorting Islam to account.

BAHGAT: One of Bassem's greatest achievements so far has been to reclaim Islam, to actually rid those extremists from the power to exclusively represent Islam by saying in fact it is your discourse that is an insult to Islam and as Muslims, we are offended by what you're saying and that's why we're going to be poking fun at you.

But the Morsi government and the office of the president are again following two very well established tactics, turning this into a fight with the U.S. and turning this into a fight over insulting Islam. Whereas it's really Morsi getting increasingly fed up with Bassem's satire.

DICKEY: No, and to some extent the whole future of the Middle East is at play here. And one of the big, big questions is what kind of government will the Ikhwan, will the Muslim Brotherhood bring in, either directly or indirectly through front parties are allied parties. You know, the Muslim Brotherhood existed for years and years, claiming Islam is the solution. And they were going to monopolize Islam.

And it was going to be the solution. But when you're really in government, Islam is not the solution; you solve things by solving real problems. And they can't do it. And they're desperate right now.

AMANPOUR: Well, we have seen the sort of gridlock in Egypt. We've seen the gridlock over the constitution. We've seen -- you know, they're short of fuel. They have a bad economy. The tourism, the lifeblood of Egypt has dried up. We have problems with assault on women and their rights.

What has President Morsi's nearly-year in office done for the Muslim Brotherhood reputation around the region, Chris?

DICKEY: It's been disastrous for it. I can tell you that in Jordan, where I was recently, they're overjoyed. The king, King Abdullah and his partisans are overjoyed at the disaster that's -- that has occurred in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood, because the Muslim Brotherhood was really challenging power in Jordan. And it is not anymore.

I think in Tunisia as well, the Islamic government there is more and more discredited.

So I think that the -- again, the cornerstone of all this is Egypt. If Egypt has a Muslim Brotherhood government and it cannot govern effectively, it cannot bring jobs; it cannot restore the economy. It's a disaster --


AMANPOUR: But what does this mean, because as Egypt goes, so does the rest of the Arab world. This is democracy. This is what everybody in the whole world wanted to see, a democratic Middle East that started in Tunisia and Egypt. Where does this country go?

BAHGAT: Because this is democracy, this is not actually about being Islamist. It's not about political Islam at all. It is about the rise of another authorization regime to replace other authorization rules that were toppled by these revolutions.

I spent years countering, trying to counter the rhetoric of the Mubarak regime of saying, you know, it's to the U.S. and to the E.U., you can either work with me or you have deal with Islamists. And what we were saying then was that, in fact, having Islamists being democratically elected to power is much better than what we were living through under Mubarak.

I was one of those that celebrated the victory of Morsi over the opponent who represented the military establishment and the old regime. And so was Bassem Youssef. And so were many of those that are being prosecuted now by Morsi.

What the Muslim Brotherhood did is not just destroy our hopes and the hopes of this revolution and especially the young people that are being increasingly pushed now towards violence because the political process is being shut in the face. But also destroy their own project, that they've waited to implement for 80 years.

AMANPOUR: So, Chris, where does -- where does one go from here? Where does the U.S. go (inaudible) --


DICKEY: I think the most important thing is to try and keep the democratic process alive. I mean, I think, you know, Christiane, in the old days, we would go to Iraq under Saddam Hussein and you went -- you remember what a real Arab dictatorship is like?

Well, we're not talking about that. We're talking about constraints, limitations on democracy. We're talking about problematic elected by very poorly performing government that may yet be replaced through the electoral process. That's what's important, is to keep the democratic options alive. They're trying to shut them down. But the people are fighting back.

BAHGAT: And they will continue to fight back.

AMANPOUR: Hossam, thank you very much.

Chris Dickey, thank you very much for coming in.

DICKEY: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Fascinating.

And not only do the new Egyptian authorities lack a certain sense of humor, as we've said, they are also running out of gas, literally.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Long lines at the gasoline pump can take hours, even days to fill up the tank, adding fuel to the fire of what is already a combustible situation. At least five people have been reported killed in the last few weeks.

But while frustrated drivers are stuck in line, recent violence has caused tourism, as we said, a vital part of the economy, to plummet. At the same time, attacks on women increase and food prices are soaring. With tempers and temperatures rising, Egypt is headed for a long, hot summer.


AMANPOUR: After a break, we'll turn to the fight for social justice here in the United States and the women at the forefront aren't pulling any punches. The habit of being Sister Simone when we come back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. Pope Francis put women center stage today at his weekly address at the Vatican. The pontiff described the special role that women play in the Easter holiday, explaining that Mary Magdalene and another woman named Mary were the first to discover Jesus' empty tomb.


POPE FRANCIS (from captions): The first witnesses of the resurrection are women. This is beautiful and this is the mission of women, of mothers and women, to give witness to their children and grandchildren.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Just before Easter, the pope was on his knees, literally, washing women's feet. Francis is the first pontiff to include women in this annual holy tradition. The act drew applause from many throughout the Catholic Church, except amongst traditionalists, who worry that Pope Francis may take steps to ordain women.

Sister Simone Campbell is a Catholic nun and an activist for social justice. She leads Nuns on the Bus, which toured the United States last year to raise awareness for the working poor, which is also a cause very close to the heart of Pope Francis.

Sister, welcome.

SISTER SIMONE CAMPBELL, ACTIVIST: Thank you. Great to be here.

AMANPOUR: Did you get a huge surge of hope, a great good feeling when you heard the pope this morning in St. Peter's Square?

CAMPBELL: I must say that my hope has continued to be raised by all the experiences in this very short time. But I also have to say that there's a part of me that's very nervous, waiting for the other shoe to drop, because I do worry about him and his capacity to make change to quickly, because there are those pressures that push against him.

And in any governance, like we -- you were just talking about, there are countervailing forces. And we just need to really support him in prayer at this point.

AMANPOUR: I heard you sort of giggle when I said, you know, raising some concern in some traditional circles that, despite his very clear statements that he's against female ordination, that this washing of the feet, this very public paying tribute to women, could be a prelude to some kind of raising women in the church again.

CAMPBELL: Well, I think the irony is that everyone's been -- a conservative element has been afraid of this, quote, "slippery slope," that if you start acknowledging women at all, that means that it goes to ordination. Well, there are many of us that think ordination is the place where any vocation should be nourished and fostered.

But the real fact is that our church is less if we don't partner with each other. If women's voices are not in decision-making, if women are not a part of the conversation, they were in Jesus' time; they need to be in our time. And I thought his point that women recognize that Jesus had risen first and the Apostles didn't believe them is sort of the continuing story of the church.

AMANPOUR: Now what about the very public, let's say, dissing of some of you progressive nuns, who have been going around the United States, you know, touting social justice, talking about the working poor, talking about life in all its forms, and yet the previous pope and the Vatican hierarchy calling you radicals, calling you sisters with an agenda, telling you to either, you know, put up or shut up.

CAMPBELL: I know, and that's the utter irony, is the fact that we were doing the mission that we were founded to do. Our organization was named by the Vatican just a year ago as being a problem organization because we worked too much with the poor.

I mean, that is our mission. And so I guess in this tension, I hope that there's a movement away from that sense of censure. The whole idea that we can welcome in everyone who's on the margins, including me, that I could be at peace at the center and bring the Gospel as we know it. That's what we're about.

AMANPOUR: And what is your relationship with the Vatican hierarchy right now, and how do you expect it to change or not? Or do you think you'll still be on the outside?

CAMPBELL: I have no idea. Actually, they'd never talk to us. Before they censured us or after, they never talked to us.

So I have no idea what they're thinking or where they're going. I guess my hope is that it sort of becomes like the Italians deal with things, that it falls to the back of the drawer and then falls into the circular file and disappears. I mean, that would be a good outcome. But I don't know what they intend to do.

AMANPOUR: It does, though, seem that there is a tonal shift, not just led by the pope, Pope Francis, but trickling down also to cardinals and to bishops. I want to play you something that the Cardinal of New York, Timothy Dolan, said to my colleague, George Stephanopoulos, on "This Week."


TIMOTHY DOLAN, CARDINAL OF NEW YORK: We've got to do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people. And I admit we haven't been too good at that. We try our darndest to make sure we're not an anti-anybody. We're in the defense of what God has taught us about marriage, that it's one man, one woman, forever, to bring about new life.

We got to do better to try to take that away from being anti-anybody.


AMANPOUR: So, you know, this is a change in tone.

CAMPBELL: Absolutely. It's a huge change. And I began to think that maybe what Pope Francis is doing is freeing our leadership from the fear of censorship. The real fact is that our leadership, our bishops, have been silent with diverse opinions.

And they have only espoused the strictest, the most rigid perspective of faith or of approach to morality, when -- really, when you look at the Gospel, it is all about welcoming in everyone.

And so Cardinal Dolan is right at the end. We've got to embrace everyone. But I don't think it's a question just of tone. It's also a question of our hearts and that we've got to change our hearts and know that everyone belongs at the table. That's where -- that's where the big change has to come.

AMANPOUR: You have written and you've spoken about the changing focus of bishops. You talked about bishops in the 1980s were very different than those we find today.

In what way?

CAMPBELL: Well, in the 1980s, that was all about economic justice. There's this fabulous peace pastoral that was done by the Bishops of the United States. Our organization was founded in response to our bishops' call to do -- work for economic justice. And now they're censuring us because we work for economic justice? They seem to have changed their mind.

AMANPOUR: Not just work; you've actually toured this country, lobbying against the Republican budget.

CAMPBELL: Absolutely.

AMANPOUR: Because you've said it's just not up to the Catholic faith. And it is obviously Representative Paul Ryan's budget, and he's a Catholic.

CAMPBELL: Right. And actually, on that one, we stood with our bishops. They at least released a press statement, saying that the budget failed the basic moral test. But they didn't really let anybody know that they were doing it.

So we took their press statement and we toured the country to let people know, because folks don't know the principles of our faith. We've - - oh, and we found a hungry people everywhere, hungry for a spiritual renewal so that the gospel lives in their lives. It's not about a bunch of rules. It's about living.

AMANPOUR: And, incredibly, the Pew organization has taken a poll since -- here in the United States since Pope Francis' election, and finds that the vast majority of Catholics are supporting him and are -- and are really feeling energized and hopeful.

CAMPBELL: Absolutely. And I think it is that hope that may be the thing that gets us to connect with each other, because we know we're no longer in this alone. As long as we were afraid and fearful of censure, then we seal ourselves up and we're not connected. That's the antithesis of faith. Faith brings us together in community.

AMANPOUR: No longer afraid. Sister Simone Campbell, thank you so much indeed for joining me.

CAMPBELL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And after a break, the viral video that gave new meaning to basketball's March Madness, a college coach who crossed the line while those above him look the other way, when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally tonight, we've been talking about a change of culture at the top of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Catholic sisterhood. We've seen how the Egyptian government cracked down, of all people, on a comedian, a cultural icon.

And at the same time, here in the United States, abuse in another kind of iconic cultural arena, the sport of basketball. It's been going on with no such crackdown.

This viral video shows an American basketball coach clearly crossing the line between discipline and abuse, while those in authority look the other way. Coach Mike Rice of Rutgers University in New Jersey was caught on smartphone video.


MIKE RICE, BASKETBALL COACH, RUTGERS UNIVERSITY (from captions): You f**cking fairy, you're a f**king fa**ot."

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Hurling homophobic insults at his players and hurling basketballs at them, at point blank range, even kicking them. And this went on for two years. When the video evidence was first shown to Rutgers officials last December, the coach was merely suspended for three games and he was fined $50,000. By the way, he was reported to be making $650,000 a year.

Today, five months and a huge firestorm of protest later, Rutgers finally fired the coach. That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website,, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching. Goodbye from New York.