CAIRO — Egypt’s public prosecutor on Saturday ordered the arrest of a popular television satirist on charges that included insulting President Mohamed Morsi and denigrating Islam, a state news agency reported, a move that amplified criticisms that the Islamist government is moving aggressively to silence its critics and stifle freedom of expression.
The satirist, Bassem Youssef, who hosts a widely watched show modeled on “The Daily Show,” has been the subject of numerous legal complaints filed by Islamist lawyers and citizens who took umbrage at Mr. Youssef’s skewering of Egypt’s political class, including Mr. Morsi, his loyalists and the opposition.
But the arrest warrant seemed to represent a sharp escalation of the campaign against Mr. Youssef, with the public prosecutor appointed by Mr. Morsi lending official credence to the complaints. In the nine months since Mr. Morsi took office, his government has been accused of employing the same harsh measures against dissent as did the previous authoritarian leaders, including prosecuting critics, confiscating newspapers and placing sympathetic journalists in state news media organs.
Last week, the public prosecutor, Talaat Ibrahim, ordered the arrest of five anti-Islamist activists on charges that they had used social media to incite violence against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shortly after the warrant was announced Saturday, Mr. Youssef confirmed on Twitter that he had been summoned and said he intended to visit the prosecutor’s office on Sunday, the beginning of Egypt’s workweek. “Unless they were so kind as to send a police wagon to pick me up today, and save me the transportation,” he added.
It was not immediately clear which episodes of Mr. Youssef’s program, which is watched by millions of people on television or on the Internet, had prompted the warrant. Al Ahram, the state newspaper, said Saturday that prosecutors had considered the testimony of 28 complainants and had examined four episodes.
One complainant accused Mr. Youssef of denigrating Islam and disturbing security, and demanded that the state take “deterrent measures against him so that others with weak resolve wouldn’t dare to insult Islam.” The unnamed critic also accused the television host of insulting the president, including by “underestimating his stature domestically and abroad.”
While private legal complaints have become fairly commonplace since Egypt’s 2011 uprising, the government has signaled that it takes the threat from Mr. Youssef much more seriously, going so far as to appoint a judge to investigate the complaints against him, according to Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch.
“It means you’re prioritizing the case, and dedicating resources to it,” she said, adding that the public prosecutor had moved aggressively against criminal defamation cases, while ignoring numerous complaints of torture and the use of excessive force by Egypt’s security services. Issuing an arrest warrant — without any reasonable fear that Mr. Youssef was trying to flee the country — “is completely unnecessary and definitely a political escalation,” she said.