With a sneer, Egypt TV host challenges Islamists
He emerged as one of the most popular television personalities of post-revolution Egypt by largely railing against the revolution, a bombastic conservative who every night mocked the country's "enemies" — everyone from leftists and Islamists to Freemasons and Zionists — with rants full of abuse and earthy humor.
Now Tawfiq Okasha is presenting himself as the country's champion against a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood, starting an open clash with the group and the new Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi.
There are widespread worries among Egyptians that Morsi and the Brotherhood have amassed too much power, holding executive and legislative authorities as well as dominating the process of writing the next constitution.
But the lightning-rod TV host is a divisive figure. Many secular politicians and activists who distrust the Brotherhood shun him, seeing him as a remnant of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime. Some are convinced that Okasha is a front for the powerful security agencies of Mubarak's police state that are trying to maintain their influence.
The controversy over Okasha was on display Friday, the day he and several other conservative figures had called for massive protests in a new "revolution" against the Brotherhood. Most of the activist groups that fueled last year's anti-Mubarak uprising refused to join. Many liberals have generally sought to work within the system to rein in the Brotherhood, recognizing Morsi's legitimacy as the country's first elected civilian president.
Turnout Friday was small — even if the crowds were vehement. About 3,000 demonstrated in front of Morsi's presidential palace in Cairo, chanting against "the Brotherhoodization of Egypt" and shouting, "Dissolution of the Brotherhood is the solution." Protests of similar size took place in several other cities.
The protest comes as the duel between Okasha and the Brotherhood has escalated in recent weeks, as the Brotherhood-backed government has sought to take action against some of its most vehement critics in the media.
Okasha is facing trial on charges of inciting for Morsi's murder, and the TV station that he owns and was his mouthpiece — "Al-Faraeen," or "The Pharoahs" — has been forced off the air.
The charges came after Okasha launched an on-air tirade against Morsi, blaming him for an Aug. 5 attack by presumed Islamic militants who killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. Okasha warned Morsi not to attend the soldiers' funeral for his own safety. He claimed the Brotherhood and Morsi plan to kill him and retorted, "Fine, I declare it permissible to shed your blood too."
"You don't know what I have. I have beasts and lions behind me," he said, addressing Morsi and the Brothers. "If you don't control yourselves, I'll put it all to the torch."
The next day, Morsi cancelled plans to attend the funeral. His prime minister, Hesham Kandil, went and was attacked and pelted with shoes, forcing him to flee the ceremony.
The weeks leading up to Friday's protest have been testy. The Brotherhood has accused Okasha and his associates of being behind arson attacks on a number of the group's offices around the country. One Muslim cleric said it was permitted to kill those who participated in the protest.
"They are terrified of me because of my popularity," Okasha, who remains free pending trial but did not attend Friday's protests, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
"I want to continue the revolution, against the Islamists," he said, dismissing the leftist and liberal activists who keep their distance from him. "The revolutionary youth who are in the news every day are infiltrated by the Brotherhood."
Little known previously, Okasha vaulted into the public eye after Mubarak's Feb. 11, 2011 ouster, with a style reminiscent of American TV personality Glenn Beck — far-right political sermons mixed with humor, bombast and wild warnings of conspiracies. Okasha mixes in an abrasive populism, using rural slang and earthy jokes to appeal to a spectrum of Egyptians who feared post-uprising instability.
He staunchly backed the military that took power after Mubarak and other Mubarak-era powers against liberals and leftists calling for greater democracy and against Islamists who for much of the past 18 months have tussled with the military over power.
He relishes in deriding activists. In one program, he taunted several female activists prominent in anti-military protests, offering to marry them off to "real Egyptians" who would shut them up and "teach them to love Egypt." He mocked reformist leader Mohamed ElBaradei as out of touch, challenging him to explain how to "fatten up a duck" like farmers do.
Originally from the Nile Delta town of Nebro, he often strikes the tone of a country landowner or elder explaining complicated truths to simple people, shifting between elevated Arabic and famers' rural slang. In one recent appearance, he was interviewed at his ranch, sitting by his horse corral and wearing a traditional galabeya robe, talking about how the Brotherhood were a front for Zionists and Freemasons. In the studio, where he wears suits, he bounces from serious to antic, one moment falling out of his own chair as a joke, the next moment narrowing his eyes, slamming his fist on the table and hinting at his inside connections.
"I have files and documents that will make you hair stand on end ... I have got secrets to reveal," he once boasted.
Many in the public eat it up, and Okasha has brought his supporters out in the streets in the past.
He led several protests in support of Morsi's opponent in this year's presidential race, Ahmed Shafiq, a Mubarak loyalist and a former regime official.
Last year, after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton criticized Egypt's military, Okasha taunted her over her husband's 1990s affair with Monica Lewinsky. "I like you, Hillary, really, you're cute, blonde hair, sweet as cream," he said with a sneer. "It made me so sad when little Monica made a fool of you."
When Clinton came to visit in July after Morsi's victory, Okasha accused the U.S. of helping bring Islamists to power, and his supporters protested outside her hotel, chanting, "Monica, Monica."
Political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan compares him to "Hitler's minister of propaganda (Joseph) Geobbels."
"Okasha speaks a simple language that is easily digested by the marginalized and those who might have zero knowledge or literacy," said Hassan. "For the farmer sitting in his field or the mechanic who watches Okasha, he feels that he can also be a leader or a presenter."
Hassan said that during the post-Mubarak transition, Okasha was "crucial in the psychological warfare" by the ruling military against revolutionaries and Islamists.
But the victory by Morsi, a longtime Brotherhood leader, in the presidential election pushed Okasha even to denounce the military for letting it happen. He called the then-head of the military, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, "a donkey" and said the generals and Islamists "were two sides of the same coin." Morsi has since replaced Tantawi as defense minister and military chief.
Okasha insists he does not serve the old regime, pointing out his station was suspended once before the revolution.
But many activists are convinced he has the support of powerful security officials, pointing to his occasional leaking of security information.
Okasha's prominence proves "the old regime of Egypt is still alive and kicking," said activist and former TV presenter Bothina Kamel. "The minute this regime really collapses, Okasha will end."