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Egypt's Troubles Enumerated

Aired April 5, 2013 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Hello, everyone, I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the special weekend edition of our program, where we take a deeper look at a major story that we covered this week.

Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist, may be the canary in the proverbial coal mine. His prosecution and persecution by the Morsi government appears to be a warning sign of a deep crisis within Egypt's struggling democracy because, despite the focus on Youssef, satire is the least of President Morsi's problems.

The Egyptian economy is tanking. Fuel and food prices are spiking. And unemployment is stubbornly high, especially for young people.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Egyptians face staggering gas lines and empty grocery shelves as supplies dwindle. A wave of violence threatens Egypt's women and meanwhile with all the unrest tourists, the lifeblood of Egypt's economy, are staying away in droves. And even where there's good news, poor Egyptians can't get a break.

The International Monetary Fund is in Cairo, negotiating a deal to bolster the economy with a $4.8 billion loan. But at what cost? The loan comes with conditions, tax hikes, service cuts and an end to the fuel and food subsidies that are a lifeline for those who need it most, which brings us back to Bassem Youssef and the power of punchlines to speak truth to the Morsi government.

I spoke with him on Monday after he had faced hours of interrogation by Egypt's prosecutors.


AMANPOUR: Bassem Youssef, welcome to the program. Thank you for joining me again.

YOUSSEF: Thank you very much. Glad to be here.

AMANPOUR: Bassem, you have just undergone five hours of interrogation. What was it like? What did they ask you?

YOUSSEF: Well, because what I present is visual, it's video, these are like episodes. 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: And how did they take it? I mean, look, Bassem, the last time I interviewed you was in December. And you said to me on this program that, yes, President Morsi and the powers that be seem to like it all so far, that this is the best time to have a satirical program in Egypt.

Are you eating your words or do you still believe that to be the case?

YOUSSEF: No, no, no, I mean, first of all, it is the best time to have a political satire show in Egypt because everything that's happening around us is surreal. I mean, if you don't make fun of it, you'll just like wither away and die. I mean, that's your only option.

The -- maybe President Morsi still likes my program. I mean, that was, of course, an assumption; but the problem is that it's not just a problem of President Morsi. It's the problem of the people who are basically behind the power, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Before -- I mean, when I went along with Jon Stewart on all my interviews, I said if democracy came -- got the Muslim Brotherhood in power, they should have a chance. And I still stand by my words. But the thing is if they have a chance in a truly democratically elected system, after revolution, they need to shape up and they need to step up.

And all what we have seen so far is basically the same old game and the business as usual, persecuting people who -- with freedom of speech.

AMANPOUR: Do you think the revolution is going backwards?

YOUSSEF: Oh, the revolution have gone backwards so long ago.


YOUSSEF: No, I've -- I mean, it's -- I think it's a phase that any revolution would -- a guy should pass by. And basically the good thing about the revolution that we need to -- people to show up for their words. They need to step up.

And now it is the time for the political Islamic powers to actually step up and show us if they're actually truly moderate and they're truly democratic and they believe in democracy.

AMANPOUR: Well, let me ask you, because, look, they've accused you of not only insulting the president but also, you know, partaking in public disorder by your satire programs and also insulting Islam. How worried are you about the seriousness of those charges?

YOUSSEF: I'm not worried at all, because I'm a Muslim; I'm a practicing Muslim. I -- it's all the same, a proud Egyptian, I'm a proud Muslim. So it's basically -- it's a -- it is some sort of an accusation that comes from the time of the Inquisition.

So this is a modern-time Inquisition where they hold people for their words and they use holy reasons to put them in jail. So I'm not worried, because I have not done anything to insult my religion, which I'm proud of. And there are some people who want to make it as if it is a fight or a struggle between secularists and Muslims. This is not true.

I'm a -- many people like me, who are practicing Muslims; they are moderate and they don't like the people who represent what they call political Islam. I mean, Islam is a wonderful religion; it's a great religion, a peaceful religion.

And there's some other people who claim to be the sole representatives of Islam. They are the ones who are actually giving a bad image and they're basically insulting their image of Islam. So it's not like a infidels versus Islam war.

AMANPOUR: What are the specific things that you are alleged to have done? How did you insult the president or Islam according to these charges?

YOUSSEF: Specifically, I think about insulting the president there was a couple of punchlines, basically commenting on his speeches, which, as I think it was written, that people felt extremely affected psychologically to see their president being insulted, and that would actually affect our status throughout the world.

AMANPOUR: Are you intimidated by this, five hours of interrogation, more than $2,000 in bail, possible trial, who knows what next?

Are you changing the tone of your show?

YOUSSEF: The tone of my show is actually getting higher and higher and higher. And I'm not intimidated; I'm just exhausted by this.

So I'm not going to let this drain me. I'm just going to continue and continue with the show, continue with the same high tone of the show. We're not going to back down, we're not going to actually -- we're not going to -- we're not going to relax about what we -- we're going to have fun doing it, as usual.

AMANPOUR: President Morsi's office says that the public prosecutor operates independently of the presidency and that he, President Morsi, respects free speech. Do you believe that?

YOUSSEF: Well, again, if they said that, I believe it. But this is exactly the same rhetoric that we heard from the ex-regime.

I mean, President -- the ex-president, Mubarak, never put someone directly into an investigation. There were other people who were great supporters of the regime, who did that for him. And he would come at the end and actually show his grace and release them.

So I mean, we were talking here about the fundamentals of all of this. In a modern democratic country, those laws that can actually allow people to put other people into investigation and trial and jail because of accusation, like insulting the president or insulting a certain religion, is ridiculous. This is -- these are actually the foundations of a fascist regime.

Their law of insulting the president has been there since the 1880s. This is -- actually was taken from the French law, which was abandoned in 1904. We are actually -- we are -- we are -- we are operating with a law that has been obsolete for over a century. It's ridiculous.

AMANPOUR: And in the meantime, there are other really troubling things happening in Egypt, for instance, the huge spike in sexual assaults against women, not to mention the terrible economic problems and the security law and order problems.

I mean, do you see the government able to tackle this?

Are they reacting against you because they feel under threat by the other real problems that are happening in Egypt?

YOUSSEF: The problem now with the rhetoric of the government and their supporting media, that they are blaming everything on the media for talking about problems instead of actually solving the problems, this is a government that is hanging its failure on other people's right for free speech.

So basically you're having an authority that have failed every single promise. And they expect that people will remain silent. And they expect that people that will shut up. And that will not happen. So that's why you have the unrest.

AMANPOUR: And Bassem, finally, when I interviewed you a few months ago, you told me that your mother was quite worried about you, that every time you popped up on television, she thought that you were going to be hauled off to jail.

Do you think her fears have come true?

YOUSSEF: Well, I mean, she's still worried. And now going to jail is a risk that we have to go through. But you know, with big shows and big programs comes creative responsibility and maybe bigger risks. So I think we just have to accept that this would happen anytime. And meanwhile, we will just have fun doing this.

AMANPOUR: Have you heard from Jon Stewart?

YOUSSEF: Oh, yes. I mean, of course, he asks about me and he's -- and he's -- we've been in touch and we've been corresponding and, who knows, maybe he will talk about me in the show.

Hi, Jon.


AMANPOUR: Bassem Youssef, thank you so much for joining me.

YOUSSEF: Thank you.


AMANPOUR: And after a break, we'll dig deeper into this story. If Egypt's new president feels threatened by a funnyman, what does it mean for the future of his government and his country?




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program and our coverage of Egypt's controversial decision to investigate one of the country's most popular comedians, Bassem Youssef.

On Wednesday, I spoke with Christopher Dickey, the Middle East editor for "Newsweek" and also to 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 his 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, 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 was 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 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: Is this the Salafis 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 criticizing 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 or 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 assaults 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, 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 authoritarian regime to replace other authoritarian 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 shot 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 a problematic, elected but 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.

And if Egypt is the cornerstone of the Arab Spring, the progress made is beginning to crumble. Long lines at the gas pump and short fuses behind the steering wheel when we come back.




AMANPOUR: And finally, not only do the new Egyptian authorities lack a sense of humor, they're also running out of gas -- literally. Long lines at the gasoline pumps mean that it can take hours, even days to fill up the tank, adding fuel to the fire of what's already a combustible situation. At least five people have been reported killed in the last few weeks.

But while frustrated drivers are stuck in longer lines and their fuse grow ever shorter as well as all the other problems we've spoken about on this program, garbage remains uncollected, electricity is so erratic now that blackouts are becoming the norm.

And in addition, Egypt's photojournalists, who are attempt to chronicle the nation's struggle for democracy, are being targeted by all sides. Their only self-defense is their cameras. With tempers and temperatures rising, Egypt is headed for a long, hot summer. And that is no laughing matter.

That's it for the weekend edition of our program. You can always contact us on our website,, and on Twitter and Facebook. Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.