Bassem Youssef is better known as ‘Egypt’s John Stewart’. He is a 39 year old cardiologist who made his name with an online comedy programme styled along the lines of The Daily Show. Ever since Egypt’s revolution in 2011 Youssef has attracted a large following in the Middle East, making fun of religious and political figures. With both of those features merged somewhat toxically in the country’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood, there was almost a sense of inevitability about Youssef’s arrest last week on charges of insulting Islam and the President.

Youssef’s case has generated a lot of international attention but there are scores of arrests like his. Consider Ali Qandil, a stand-up comedian who appeared on Youssef’s show. He mocked the angry, po-faced posturing of Egypt’s clerical establishment and was promptly charged with insulting Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood clearly doesn’t do irony.

More generally, television stations featuring belly dancers have been closed down. Bloggers like Alber Saber have been sentenced to custodial sentences (three years in that case) for offending religious sensibilities, while YouTube has fallen foul of Egyptian censors. They recently blocked the site for 30 days in protest at its continued hosting of the Innocence of Muslims film.

All this is possible because the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to repeal Mubarak era laws. Their obstructionism, coupled with an imposing state bureaucracy and squeezed economy, presents a very real threat to the future of free speech in Egypt, where bloggers are imprisoned, comedians harassed, and the press straightjacketed. If they suffer, so too will Egypt.

Tags: Egypt, Freedom of speech, Islamism, Muslim Brotherhood