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Tell jokes, go to jail

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 6:12 AM EDT, Fri April 5, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bassem Youssef was charged with mocking Egypt's president and insulting Islam
  • Dean Obeidallah: Youssef, considered the Jon Stewart of Egypt, was performing comedy
  • He says there's fear in the Middle East that comedy will undermine political leaders
  • Obeidallah: Will Egypt's new president embrace democracy and freedom of expression?

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog The Dean's Report and co-host of a new CNN podcast "The Big Three" that looks at the top three stories of the week. Follow him on Twitter @deanofcomedy.

(CNN) -- Comedy scares people in power.

We saw a disturbing example this week when Egyptian TV host and comedian Bassem Youssef, frequently described as Egypt's Jon Stewart, was charged with the crimes of mocking Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy and insulting Islam. If convicted, Youssef could be fined and sentenced to prison.

Now, before you quickly categorize this incident under the catch all, "They hate us for our freedoms" crap, let's not forget our own history.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

Comedy legend Lenny Bruce was arrested not once but eight times, in the early 1960s for telling jokes that were considered obscene. However, Bruce's lawyer argued that the comedian was not being prosecuted for his profanity but rather for mocking political leaders and religion.

In 1964, Bruce was convicted of violating New York's obscenity laws and sentenced to four months of hard labor. Being sentenced to hard labor is doubly painful since comedians go into comedy to avoid hard labor. Bruce tragically died of a morphine overdose in 1966 while the appeal to his criminal conviction was pending.

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Today, a comedian in the United States is unlikely to be criminally prosecuted for profanity, mocking elected officials or ridiculing religion. (If they could, Bill Maher and countless others would probably be on death row.)

While some of our elected officials may hate being the target of comedians' barbs, none would argue that jokes are a threat to our nation.

In the Arab world, however, stand-up comedy and satirical political comedy shows like the one Bassem Youssef hosts are a very new development. There's a great fear in the region that this form of entertainment will undermine political leaders.

Egypt's Jon Stewart answers joke by joke

I have witnessed this anxiety firsthand while performing stand-up comedy across the Middle East.

The crowds are usually amazing. But we comedians are advised by show promoters to avoid telling jokes mocking the political leaders and religions -- not just Islam, but also Christianity and Judaism. And of course, no sexual humor or profanity.

I know many of you are thinking: So what's left to talk about? Actually, plenty. As comedians, we are accustomed to tailoring our acts to fit certain "special" shows.

In fact, while performing at a corporate event in the United States -- such as for employees at an annual corporate retreat -- one will generally encounter similar content boundaries: No jokes about politics, sex and religion, plus, keep it clean. (Hmm, funny how U.S. corporations and Middle Eastern governments impose the same content restrictions.)

But believe it or not, in the last few years the leash on comedians performing in the Middle East has loosened. For example, in certain countries, we had to write our comedy material out word for word so local government authorities could review it for appropriateness before a show.

Those days are gone. No one asks for scripts any longer, because the people in power have apparently become more comfortable with stand-up comedy. Some comedians have started to push the boundary by using some profanity and sexually suggestive material.

But Bassem Youssef did more. Inspired by Jon Stewart, he performed jokes about the president of Egypt by name, even mockingly dressing like him in sketches. To us, this is commonplace, but in Egypt this was unheard of. Keep in mind that until recently, Egypt was ruled by Hosni Mubarak, who limited public dissent in his almost 30 years of rule.

I always knew an Arab Jon Stewart or Chris Rock would emerge and use comedy to skewer political leaders. Youssef has become that icon. But now he's paying for his boldness.

The question is: Will Morsy move Egypt toward embracing democracy and freedom of expression? Or will he take a step back and follow the policies of Mubarak?

Being a democratic nation entails much more than simply having elections -- it means vigilantly guarding freedom of expression, including the right of all people -- comedians, journalists, bloggers, critics -- to poke fun or disagree with the government.

So far, early signs are not hopeful. The U.S. embassy in Cairo tweeted out a link to a segment from Monday night's "The Daily Show" in which Stewart defended Youssef. The office of Egypt's president responded swiftly via Twitter: "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

President Morsy should make it clear that the revolution in Egypt truly ushered in democracy, and along with it freedom of expression. Otherwise, the new leadership will be perceived as just another oppressive government.

The world awaits Morsy's response.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

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