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Friday, November 1, 2013

Egyptian Network Abruptly Suspends TV Satirist

Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian satirist and late-night talk show host whom Muslim Brotherhood partisans sought unsuccessfully to try for “insulting the president” during their year of rule, had his show abruptly suspended by network executives just minutes before broadcast on Friday. That came one week after he mocked the ultranationalism and pro-military fervor gripping Egypt during the season premiere of his weekly program.

The decision to suspend Mr. Youssef’s show, “The Program,” was announced on Friday night by the host of the program that is shown immediately before it, who read a statement by the management of the television channel CBC. The network quickly posted parts of the statement to Twitter.

This Arabic-language video shows the decision to suspend Bassem Youssef’s show being read on the air just minutes before Friday’s episode was scheduled to begin.

According to the statement, CBC’s board of directors decided to suspend the program after discovering that Friday’s episode, which was prerecorded, contained content that violated an agreement made by network executives, Mr. Youssef and his producers. The statement said Mr. Youssef would remain off the air while CBC “solved the technical and administrative problems specific to the program.”

It was not immediately clear what problems they were referring to or what agreement the network executives might have made with Mr. Youssef regarding the content of his show.

Last week’s episode was the first since the military ouster in June of President Mohamed Morsi, a frequent satirical target of “The Program.” His supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood fought back, opening an official investigation into Mr. Youssef for his gleeful mockery of the president. In one segment, broadcast last January and subtitled by Sam Heller, a researcher and blogger based in Qatar, the satirist used the threat of prosecution as the setup for a joke.

Video of a segment from a January 2013 episode of Bassem Youssef’s show, in which he made light of an investigation into whether he had insulted President Mohamed Morsi.

Viewers tuned in last week to see if Mr. Youssef would treat the country’s new military leadership to the same kind of skewering as the deposed Islamists. Instead they found him carefully walking a tightrope, refraining from direct criticism of the military chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, but instead mocking the pro-military, nationalist fervor that some have called “Sisi-Mania.”

David Kenner, a Cairo-based editor for Foreign Policy magazine, wrote about the apparent caution with which Mr. Youssef approached General Sisi in the season premiere.

In one segment, he took aim at the new fad of plastering Sisi’s face on sweets. A baker comes out bearing a Sisi cake and Sisi cupcakes â€" he also sells a plain loaf of “Rabaa” bread, named after the pro-Morsy sit-in outside Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adaweya Mosque.

“I’ll take a half kilo,” Youssef says, suitable impressed with the cupcakes. The baker’s eyes narrow in suspicion at the small size of the order. Do you really like Sisi, he asks?

Youssef, suitably chastened, gives in. “OK, OK, I’ll take all of it.”

Mr. Youssef uploaded a video of last week’s episode to his show’s official YouTube account, where by Friday evening it had been viewed more than two million times.

Video of last week’s season premiere, posted to YouTube by the show’s account.

Supporters of the military were outraged by the episode despite Mr. Youssef’s careful handling of the general and filed legal complaints against the show, prompting CBC to distance itself from both the satirist and the content of his program.

The show’s suspension set off a storm of criticism of the network as well as hand-wringing about the state of free speech in Egypt almost three years after the start of a revolution that was meant to bring with it greater freedom and dignity. Hisham Hellyer, a Middle East analyst with the Brookings Institution, lamented that the network was censoring a voice that had dared criticize the authorities, even if obliquely, and predicted that the move would only amplify Mr. Youssef’s standing in much the same way his brush with the law under Mr. Morsi did.

But it was not immediately clear on Friday if the show’s suspension was related to the political controversy surrounding its first episode or to something else. An Egyptian blogger who writes under the pseudonym The Big Pharoah speculated that the show might have been suspended not because of Mr. Youssef criticized the military, but because he criticized the television network airing his show. In a series of updates posted to Twitter, The Big Pharoah said that he had been at the taping of Friday’s episode and that it was focused not on General Sisi but on lampooning the country’s media, including CBC.