CAIRO – A popular Egyptian TV presenter accused of inciting the killing of the country's new president on air denied the charges at the opening of his trial on Saturday, saying the case against him was part of a political row, Egypt's state news agency reported.
The flamboyant Tawfiq Okasha, who said on air that it was permissible to shed President Mohammed Morsi's blood, has emerged over the past months as one of the most popular media personalities in the country. He denounces almost everybody — starting with the uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down, the youth groups behind it, the military, the Freemasons and now the Islamists.
His show attracted wide viewership partially because of his personal antics where he mixes humor, rural slang and simple language with claims to have definitive information and intelligence about some of the country's most pressing issues. His attacks on the Islamists escalated after Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, was declared the winner in the country's first democratic elections.
The case against Okasha is one of several lawsuits brought mainly by Egypt's Islamists against journalists, accusing them of inflammatory coverage and inciting the public against the Brotherhood, the country's largest political group.
The legal battles are drawing mixed reactions from pro-democracy groups, many of whom defend the right of free expression, denounce imprisonment of journalists and deem the Islamists' practices as repressive. Others side with the Islamists and accuse journalists facing trials of spreading propaganda in the service of former regime loyalists.
According to Egypt's Middle East News Agency, the prosecutor in the trial Saturday accused Okasha of using his TV program in July and August to incite the killing of Morsi, and of insulting him by calling him an "illegitimate leader and a liar."
Okasha denied the charges and said it was part of a political row between him and the Muslim Brotherhood group. If convicted, Okasha can face up to three years in prison.
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 Islamist group. "If you don't control yourselves, I'll put it all to the torch."
Okasha told reporters Saturday his comments were taken out of context and that he was responding to threats he and his mother had received. MENA said the judges postponed the trial to Oct. 3.
The station owned by Okasha, "Al-Faraeen" or "The Pharaohs," was taken off the air since the case was filed against him last month.
He entered the courthouse surrounded by hundreds of supporters. They chanted: "With our soul and blood we defend you." MENA reported that the supporters caused a raucous inside the courtroom, as some of his supporters climbed on the room's windows to watch the proceedings from outside. He first appeared in the dock but later came out to address the panel of judges.
His defense team said the plaintiffs were settling scores because of Okasha's criticism of the Islamists and of Morsi before he became president. They asked the court to summon Morsi to discuss the case.
Okasha's lawyer Khaled Suleiman said the case is invalid because it was not Morsi himself that filed the complaints. Egyptian law allows private citizens to bring criminal charges in some circumstances.