CAIRO — Egypt’s Islamist leaders clashed with the United States over charges they are intolerant of free speech, as the country hosts the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loan talks it aims to conclude within days.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland pointed to the arrest warrant against comedian Bassem Youssef as an example of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt.
Youssef, known as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, was released on bail last week after he turned himself in following the issue of a warrant for insulting the Islamic faith and President Mohammed Morsi.
Egypt’s governing Islamist party Tuesday said the U.S. comment represented “blatant interference.”
Morsi’s presidential office said on its Facebook page Wednesday that “all citizens are free to express themselves without the restrictions that prevailed” under longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in the uprising of 2011. Morsi’s first legislation was to eliminate the pre-trial detention of journalists, it said.
The latest strain on ties between Egypt, a key American ally under Mubarak, and the U.S. comes as an IMF team arrives in Cairo Wednesday to resume talks on a $4.8 billion loan request. The government says it hopes to reach a deal during the visit that will help revive Egypt’s economy, which has stalled as political tensions keep investors and tourists away.
Yields on Egypt’s benchmark dollar bonds exceeded 8.6 percent this week, the highest since January 2012, and the currency has declined and foreign reserves plummeted. The main stock index fell for a fourth day Wednesday, dropping 1.4 percent to the lowest level this year.
“We have made good progress in recent weeks and we look forward to building on that work,” Masood Ahmed, the IMF’s Middle East and Central Asia department chief, said in e-mailed comments late Tuesday.
The exchanges between the U.S. and Egypt over Youssef’s case reflect unease among some in Washington since Morsi’s election in June brought the Muslim Brotherhood, suppressed under Mubarak, to power.
Egypt’s presidency, responding to a critical post on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s Twitter account about the Youssef case, said Tuesday that the mission was engaging in “political propaganda.”
The Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said the focus of the investigation was over Youssef’s alleged slights to Islam in his program, and not perceived insults to Morsi
Egypt’s investment authority said it had received complaints over the show and warned that the broadcaster, independent satellite channel CBC, may be in violation of licensing conditions, the state-run Ahram Gate reported, citing the authority’s deputy head, Abdel Moneim El-Alfy.
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