April 7, 2013

David Rohde: Egypt no laughing matter, really

The post-revolutionary political train wreck of an Arab nation has bigger fish to fry than satirists.

For Americans, it was Jon Stewart as national treasure. In a virtuoso performance Monday, the American satirist ridiculed the Egyptian government's crackdown on Cairo comedian – and Stewart protege – Bassem Youssef. If you haven't seen it, you can sample Stewart's mock conversation with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi:

"What are you worried about, Mr. President – the power of satire to overthrow the status quo?" Stewart deadpanned. "Just so you know, there's been a grand total of, uh, zero toppled governments we've brought about."

In Egypt, members of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood saw Stewart's bit differently. The comedian's skewering of Morsi was the latest insult from a nation that backed Egypt's pro-American dictators for decades. Told that cracking down on comedians was playing poorly in Washington, a usually moderate senior brotherhood member argued that Western notions of free speech were being used, yet again, to denigrate Islam.

"Yes, the same West that supported the burning of the Koran!" the member told American journalist Lauren Bohn this week. "We need to draw red lines."

Egypt's political polarization is intensifying. Crucial parliamentary elections have been delayed until October. Both sides are increasingly engaging in street violence and vitriol. Opposition leader Mohamed Elbaradei compared the government to "fascist regimes" on Twitter this week. Morsi vowed to "break the neck" of anyone who throws a petrol bomb on the street.

"I'm worried," Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor and leading Egypt expert, said in an interview. "This is a broken political system. It's a system that can't reach a consensus.

"While it's tempting to avert one's eyes from Egypt's post-revolutionary political train wreck, no Arab country is more important to the United States. The Arab world's most populous nation, Egypt is the Middle East's cultural capital and the site of an epic power struggle between conservatives and liberals that will influence the region's politics, culture and faith for decades.

Opposition members have seized on the Youssef case as the latest example of overreach and intolerance by the brotherhood. But the group's political Achilles' heel is its handling of the Egyptian economy and growing lawlessness, including a spate of sexual assaults that have polarized the country. Showing extraordinary bravery, Egyptian women have publicly described horrific gang rapes in a series of stories broadcast by Egypt's newly independent news media, The New York Times reported. Religious ultraconservatives have cravenly blamed the victims.

Inflation has nearly doubled since November, the country has lost $4 billion a year in tourism revenue since the revolution and unemployment is officially 13 percent – but actually far higher. To receive a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan, Morsi must cut government food and fuel subsidies for average Egyptians. As Stewart dryly put it, post-revolutionary Egypt is "a work in progress."

It's a stretch, but there are silver linings. The Youssef case, for example, is a testament to the indomitable spread of globalization and technology. A Cairo surgeon-turned-comic has created a wildly popular Egyptian version of "The Daily Show" that skewers the country's political elite on one of Egypt's 30 new satellite television stations.

Since the 2011 fall of President Hosni Mubarak, criticism of authority has exploded across Egyptian society, a trend that the brotherhood is now clumsily trying to stem. Youssef's case is one of up to 33 filed against comedians, activists, politicians and bloggers in just the past two weeks. Last month, protesters attacked television stations and at least three prominent journalists after Morsi criticized the media.

The response from the Obama administration – like its initial response to Egypt's revolution – has been confused. The U.S. embassy in Cairo initially tweeted a link to Stewart's monologue.

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