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Twitter Wars and the U.S. Dilemma in Egypt

3rd April, 2013
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By Tarek Radwan

How visible the United States should be in Egyptian politics has caused most policy-makers and policy-prescribers in Washington, DC to scratch their heads since the first sparks ignited the Egypt uprising. Egypt's people suddenly mattered more so than ever before, and the post-Mubarak era was not as kind to the U.S. as officials might have hoped. The most recent Twitter-driven spat between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood on one side and the U.S. government on the other exemplifies the challenges of U.S. public diplomacy and state to state relations.

For less than an hour, the U.S. embassy in Cairo shut down its Twitter feed in an attempt to get a handle on damage control over a raucous exchange between the Egyptian presidency’s official Twitter account and that of the U.S. embassy regarding the arrest and questioning of famed Egyptian heart-surgeon turned comedian, Bassem Youssef. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reached out to the embassy and confirmed that the order came from Ambassador Ann Patterson who did not consult Washington with her decision. Those who follow the case will no doubt recall the tweet that sparked the entire exchange (the content of which caused both the Muslim Brotherhood’s and the Freedom and Justice Party’s official Twitter accounts to chime in) was the embassy’s with a link to the 10 minute segment showing The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart lambasting president Morsi for the investigation of Youssef.

Many commentators remarked over the past two days on the flawed nature of the investigation, the attack on free expression and media, and the hypocrisy of accusations against Youssef for insulting the president and Islam while outspoken ultra-conservative religious figures denigrate the religion far more effectively than any comedian. The Obama administration also took an official stance, with U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland citing the case as part of a “disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression.” Why then would the person handling the social media account in Cairo feel it necessary to post the video of Stewart’s heartfelt – if comedic – defense of Bassem Youssef? And why on earth would Ambassador Patterson order the account shut down?

The answer lies in the disconnect between generations, in terms of both age and within the institution. Max Fisher, the Washington Post's foreign affairs blogger, chronicled the missteps involving the Twitter account, running through the circumstances surrounding the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims” and the subsequent Cairo embassy raid, to the November 2012 comments by that account implying President Mohammed Morsi’s return to authoritarianism. He notes that the messages communicating American impressions of Egypt muddied the waters between the official U.S. message and personal feelings of the account’s handler. The handler’s comments gave the impression of one familiar with social media but lacking the judgment in running an official government account. Ambassador Patterson on the other hand, a career diplomat wary of her relationship with the Egyptian government, had no idea the stir that closing the account would cause.

From an institutional standpoint, the diplomatic game plan towards Egypt relied largely on a hands-off approach under Secretary Clinton, preferring a formal diplomatic policy of stability through strong military relations and an economic aid program but also informal public diplomacy through avenues such as Twitter to communicate directly to Egyptian citizens as well as officials. Under new Secretary of State John Kerry, official statements take a somewhat more formal but assertive stance towards government accountability and human rights. Whether a policy steering away from public to more formal diplomacy was communicated to the Cairo embassy as yet remains unclear, but Nuland’s remarks at the State Department daily press briefing acknowledged that the decision to post Stewart’s comments was inappropriate, assuring attendees that Washington issued no instructions to take down the Twitter account.

Given the official U.S. stance on the marked increase in defamation cases in Egypt, the U.S. Cairo embassy did exercise poor judgment in tweeting a comedian’s position on the issue. Informal communication with a wide variety of Egyptians could afford a “human” element to diplomatic discussions but careful coordination and clear procedures are still necessary. Regardless of the refreshing transparency afforded by this means of communication, and however much one might agree with the tweets, the U.S. position in Egypt remains sensitive at best and requires professional and consistent messaging.

More importantly, however, Ambassador Patterson’s decision to pull the plug reflects an uncoordinated and ill-planned approach to the relatively minor diplomatic fallout. If anything, the backlash from the Morsi government and the Muslim Brotherhood adds credibility to the position against legal harassment of political activists (and comedians). Deleting tweets and closing accounts not only shows ignorance of the dynamics of social media (and the capacity to “Storify” or take screenshots) but also implies that critics can strong-arm the U.S. online presence if it takes an unpopular stance. The ambassador, the face of U.S. diplomacy in Egypt, already suffers from the stigma of stronger relations with the Muslim Brotherhood that taints her relations with opposition or nonprofit organizations that more closely share U.S. values. Try not to make it worse.

Tarek Radwan is the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. He previously reported on the Middle East with Human Rights Watch's MENA division and served as a human rights officer for the United Nations/African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur. Mr. Radwan specializes in Egypt, with a focus on civil society, human rights, the constitution, and judicial issues. Follow him on Twitter: @tradwan

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