Out of nowhere and with no warning, Egyptian television personality, Basma Wahba burst in to our lives following the Hamas attack on the communities in the Gaza border region and Israel’s ensuing acute military response.
During her 90 Minutes current affairs program, standing firmly, looking very serious while holding a piercing gaze, in broken Hebrew she addressed the Israeli public, warning them of the Arabs’ anger, and outlining Prime Minister Netanyahu’s failure to defend the country and stating that he’s working neither toward freeing the hostages nor peace with the Palestinians.
Wahba’s poignant monologue wasn’t particularly extreme or hate-ridden, especially when compared to other commentaries coming from journalists throughout the Arab world. But Wahba, who tried to talk to us in “our language”, became the butt of trashy jokes because – well, you have to hear it.
Although in Israel, there would have been negligible to no viewers watching the Egyptian, she quickly became a ludicrous caricature on social media. She received coverage in the Israeli media, was impersonated on the satirical Israeli TV show, “Eretz Nehederet”, and even landed a response video, edited by musician, Shai Raziel who has her regale Hamas’s crimes. It drove her crazy, allegedly. But considering the nature of her career, we can assume she’s enjoying every minute of it.
One would expect Wahba to keep her head down after the – alleged - humiliation. But, not only did she not retreat from the media front, she’s fighting back by owning the jokes at her own expense. Not because of any kind of self-deprecating, but rather an opportunity for self-promotion.
Prior to her October 24th broadcast, her Instagram account declared: “Wait for my program. Today’s show is different from any other show. Today, I will reveal to you what Israel has done to me! I, Basma Wahba, an Egyptian journalist will show you what I have been subjected to by the Zionist entity.”
And so, on her show she played Raziel’s AI video clip, complaining about it in prime time as if Basma Wahba was today’s top news story. The victims of Hamas, the Israeli hostages and the IDF attack on Gaza are all, it seems, dwarfed by the humanitarian disaster afflicted on her by the Zionists.
Her crocodile tears soon turned to tears of joy during the ongoing back-and-forth with Israeli media, in her own imagination, turning her into an international figure. On her Instagram page, she shared Israel’s Channel 13 News panel that hosted Raziel and included snippets from her show. She seemed rather amused by the developments.
“The Egyptian journalist who shook the Israeli kingdom” read the posting, accompanied by a laughing emoji. “Israel is so fragile, they’re broadcasting programs about it, and they’ve brought along six guests to this show just to talk about me.” She claimed that her name appears at the top of Israeli Google searches and she’s definitely been using it to advance her exposure with increased social media activity over the past two weeks.
It took her show a while to get things moving. On October 10, she was still discussing the internet spat between Al Ahly and Zamalek soccer fans surrounding the Cairo derby, along with further internal Egyptian affairs. But more recently, it’s been just Gaza and Israel.
The last few weeks have marked a turning point in Wahba’s career: Her aggressive tone, sullen face and awkward Hebrew in that monologue could have perhaps proven that she’s a serious journalist. Or, to be more precise, she has thought of herself as a serious journalist ever since appearing on television in a hijab presenting religious programs - through to the present day, making regular prime-time appearances on Egyptian television, Israeli news programs and on social media.
The 51-year-old television personality from Alexandria is a seasoned media creature who has navigated her career to local success as a provocateur and gossipmonger. Over the years, her name has been connected to countless sensational exposés of the private lives of celebrities and public figures, as well as of her own private life. We may be making fun of her, but she must have developed very thick skin after what she’s been through both on and off-screen. Now, that she’s watching Israelis mocking her, she must be smiling.
The journalist and television presenter has come a long way since starting out on the religious satellite channel, Iqraa TV, where she hosted a show dealing with Islamic legalistic issues. Nothing in these low-end productions resembles the glitzy shows she hosts today. Now, free and meticulously manicured, she very much enjoys the limelight, just as, decades ago, she was highly celebrated for Egyptian television appearances bedecked in a hijab.
Conversely, she’s well known as a daring interviewer not afraid to present complex social issues to clerics appearing as guests in her living room-style studio. In a 2003 interview, she recalled how she had studied art and librarianship when she was young. However, since taking a more religious path and donning the hijab, she has searched for pathways to commit herself to God.
At the advice of her teachers, she tried her luck as a presenter on the religious channel, which she viewed as a tool to convey messages of Islam to the public. She explained that wearing the hijab proves that a woman can be beautiful, fashionable and respectable, even when covered up in accordance with religious law.
When asked how she integrates her religion and her image as a daring interviewer, she said “A television presenter has to be spontaneous. Her appearance isn’t what’s important, but rather the content and the essence and pure intentions of hosting a show. A host must also be educated and conscious of the nature of the person she’s interviewing.
"A television host must study psychology, she must adopt a humble and modest attitude, even if she’s not humble. She’s a role model for her audiences.” 20 years later, modesty and humility are no longer part of Wahba’s image. The boldness, however, has only increased. In 2013, she left her own show following an interview with two sheiks in which she discussed authorization for enslaving women.
A fierce on-camera argument ensued. One guest, Sheikh Jamal Katub terminated the interview. This was a turning point in Wahba’s life. She ended her relationship with the religious channel and took a break from the media.
As she left her religious ways, she parted also ways with her husband, father of her two sons, businessman Osama Mohammad Al Sayed. On the professional side, she found herself on a new path: Dubai-based TV channel, OSN invited her to present a program devoted to inspiring stories of women in the Arab world. She was to appear as the new and updated version, in full makeup and no hijab.
Soon after signing the contract, however, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and was forced to extend the time-out for treatment. Her come-back arrived in 2015 when she joined TeN TV (formerly Al Tahrir TV), to host a show focusing on social and cultural affairs. In one episode - that proved a crowd-pleaser - as she was interviewing a cancer specialist, her brother Sharif called into the studio to tell her that he had been diagnosed with cancer and was currently undergoing treatment in Paris.
This was is one example of Wahba’s self-exposure, accompanied by lots of crying. The new show is mainly dedicated to revealing the private lives of other people. This invasive and loathsome approach takes the form of sometimes degrading her guests. In her quest for tabloid items of public interest, she took on the issue of the transgender community – a sensationalist subject not discussed in Arab society, and certainly not in the mainstream media.
Promotional material for an April 2015 TV special called “The third sex”, described the upcoming meeting with a group of transexuals. She was going to discuss their post-surgery lives and pre-surgery reservations. It suddenly became clear that the woman in the hijab had, herself, undergone a transformation.
Many of her fans, loyal since her religious program, were taken aback, berating her for the “filth that had attached itself to her.” But it would be hard to say that it bothered her very much. She enjoyed the attention and carried on with a follow-up episode in which she interviewed a Lebanese transgender woman named Nicole.
The voyeuristic interview, hinting that Nicole made a living as a prostitute, fast escalated to an argument that included an on-camera exchange of curse words. Furthermore, Wahba’s familiarity with the matter, quickly made her an authority on the subject. After stating that a model named Rajed Salame is a transgender with a penchant for wealthy businessmen with whom she conducts intimate relationships, Salame accused Wahba of lying.
Responding to Salame’s public denials, the vocal television personality exposed documents and photographs allegedly proving that the Egyptian Rajed had previously been known as a youth in Lebanon named Samir. A very serious journalist indeed.
With her growing popularity as a “daring investigative journalist and uncompromising interviewer”, in 2017 Wahba shifted her focus from important social matters to the private lives of Arab celebrities, dedicating her new show, “Sheikh El-Harra” on El Nas TV, to just this.
She formulated a cunning strategy of one-to-one interviews with celebrities that start off pleasantly with flurries of praise and end up with shocking revelations of their private lives. The format’s outstanding success has made the host a celebrity herself.
This celebrity status, she at least felt, granted her the right to ask guests about their relationships, infidelities and even hint at sexual orientations (She asked veteran Egyptian actor, Samir Sabri why he hadn’t married and whether it was because he “doesn’t like women”), or to descend into the use of racist terminology (In an interview with actor, Majed El Masri, as he regaled a story about an unsuccessful date with an African woman in New Zealand.)
Despite her success as a household name in Egyptian television, and countless sensational revelations, gossip and scandals, in the summer of 2019, Wahba announced her resignation. An interview with Egyptian actress, Yasmine El Khatib volunteered damning information about ex-husband, director, Khaled Yousef.
The episode implicated the journalist in a defamation suit filed by the filmmaker. She was also suspended by Egypt's Media Syndicate accusing her of ethical violations. Her shame was in no way alleviated by her present husband, Alaa Abed, being a senior member of parliament in Cairo.
But this didn’t stop the TV host from trying to get back into the limelight, dealing with current affairs, culture and politics - and on prime time no less. Equipped with a great deal of audacity, resourcefulness and respectable ratings, she was invited to host “90 Minutes” - the main current affairs program on Egypt’s third largest television channel, Al Mehwar TV.
Wahba must be pleased with her career re-launch, but behind the scenes, she’s dealing with a series of complex health issues. As mentioned, she was diagnosed with breast cancer a decade ago and has since undergone numerous surgeries. The cancer returned in 2020, and she flew to London for further treatment for the removal of a metastatic tumor.
Her personal struggle, naturally, did not remain private and she was sure to update her social media followers about the procedures she was undergoing. Furthermore, in an interview a year ago with Cairo 24 TV, she revealed that a tumor had been discovered in a stomach several years ago and she claimed that during treatments she underwent in the United States, part of her stomach was “stolen” by the medical staff.
Did they find any gold there? Wahba couldn’t quite explain her puzzling accusation of organ harvesting, but reported that the tumor had not been completely eradicated. And as if that wasn’t enough, she has stated that a cosmetic procedure she underwent in 2021 had left her jaw muscles paralyzed. It’s one problem after another.
So should we take Basma Wahba seriously? We really don’t have to. Even in Egypt, they don’t refer to her as a journalist, but rather as a “media personality”. Should we underestimate her? Not so sure. It’s hard not to crack a smile when we see her serious face, piercing gaze and hear her broken Hebrew.
But this is a shrewd woman who’s made a nice career out of both scandalous gossip and public proclamations of misery. Removing the hijab, defamation lawsuits and legal entanglements, dealing with cancer, the paralyzed jaw went from private to public. When she (twice) found herself stranded at sea in a yacht, instead of contacting naval rescue services, she sent out SOS messages via Instagram.
Even on the happy day, she was invited to receive an award as part of the 2020 Arab Satellite Broadcasting Festival, she had to go change her dress midway through the ceremony after a waiter tripped, spilling mango juice on her. No, it’s not nice, but Basma made lemonade out of Mago and even gave interviews about it to the local press.
One can only assume that the jokes about her circulating on social media in response to her castigating Israel are just cheering her up and advancing her status in the Middle East. It’s not a stain on her career. She won’t be changing her dress this time. As a leopard won’t change its spots.