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Taufiq ‘Ukasha: Exploiting Egypt’s Liminality for Fun and Profit

April 25, 2014

Tawfiq 'Ukasha: Military shill--or something more complex? Walter Armbrust suggests seeing him as a trickster figure at home in the ambiguity of a chaotic, changing society.

Tawfiq ‘Ukasha: Military shill–or something more complex? Walter Armbrust suggests seeing him as a trickster figure at home in the ambiguity of a chaotic, changing society.

While I have been following Bassem Youssef’s extraordinary career as an exploitation of the liminality of Egyptian society in the wake of the uprisings, Walter Armbrust has been writing in a similar vein about Taufiq ‘Ukasha (who you can find most easily in Internet searches transliterated as Tawfiq or Tawfik Okasha).

Taufiq ‘Ukasha is a former member of the deposed National Democratic Party who became a talk show host. He is the anchor (and possibly the owner?) of the satellite political-commentary channel Al Fara’een, and he co-hosts a popular TV show called “Egypt Today”.

In the days after the revolution, he emerged as a major supporter of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ruling government (SCAF) against Islamists and the “revolutionary youth”  He was often called “Egypt’s Glenn Beck” for his unabashed nationalism and anti-Islamist rhetoric.

‘Ukasha is often credited with being the populizer–and perhaps the originator–of the claim that the US rigged the election of Muhammad Morsi, and supports the return of the MB government, which I’ve written about here and here

I just read a great article on Taufiq ‘Ukasha by Walter Armbrust in  Comparative Studies in Society and History entitled “The Trickster in Egypt‘s January 25th Revolution.”

Armbrust argues that we cannot completely understand ‘Ukasha’s influence if we see him as a mere shill for the military government. Rather, Armbrust says, he is a trickster figure.

The trickster is a key figure in anthropological analysis of myth, ritual and narrative. Tricksters are characters who thrive in the liminal boundaries between different cultural, social and political orders, often flouting the rules of both.

In anthropological analyses, tricksters often bring into existence new social formations–and here is where Armbrust argues ‘Ukasha may be significant. And, like many tricksters, dangerous.

Here’s the abstract:

The term “counter-revolution” evokes a straightforward contestation of political claims in a revolutionary situation. But contestation is not a zero-sum game: this side wins; the other side loses, and power remains the same. A revolutionary situation is unpredictable. New formulations of political claims may emerge in a protracted moment of “liminal crisis”—a kind of political ritual with no master of ceremonies capable of ending it. Indeed, the meaning of the political prize itself might be open to reinterpretation. My paper examines counter-revolution through the lens of Taufiq ‘Ukasha, an Egyptian talk show host and former member of the deposed National Democratic Party. Since the Revolution ‘Ukasha has become increasingly prominent as an unacknowledged spokesman for Egypt’s Military Council, which assumed executive powers in the wake of the Mubarak regime’s collapse. I argue that ‘Ukasha should not be understood simply as a filul—a remnant of the old regime. He is rather a “trickster,” a creature at home in the betwixt-and-between of open-ended liminality, and as such not an instrument of a socially grounded political power. In an environment in which the usual points of social and political orientation are called into question, the significance of a trickster is that he or she can become an object of emulation, an instrument of “schismogenesis”—the creation of a new social formation. A trickster, as a creature of pure liminality, is particularly prone to generating perverted forms of social knowledge. In ‘Ukasha’s case, this new social formation is an unprecedented formulation of Egyptian militarism.

Tricksters break social boundaries, employ trickery and deception, and live by their wits. Often they are significant innovators and initiators of social, cultural or political change.

On the other hand, they are usually done in by their own excesses–a future we might predict for ‘Ukasha based on the recent spate of legal cases brought against him:

  • In March 2012, he was sentenced to six months imprisonment for insulting Khaled Said’s family (he was acquitted)
  • In July 2012a court ordered Al-Fara’een to be shut down for 45 days.
  • In September 2012, he was arrested for fraud and embezzlement (he was acquitted).
  • In September 2012, his station was shut down indefinitely (it resumed February 2013).
  • In October 2012, he was sentenced to jail for insulting the president ((he was acquitted)l).
  • In January 2013 he was banned from traveling outside the country

On the other hand, he is back on the air, enjoys enormous popular support, and was recently successful in getting  student protests banned on university campuses, except when authorized by university presidents. Clearly he will remain a controversial–and tricky–and potentially dangerous–figure in Egypt for some time to come.

References:

Armbrust, Walter. 2013. The Trickster in Egypt‘s January 25th Revolution. Comparative Studies in Society and History 55(4): 834-864.

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