On April 1st, and not an April Fools’ prank, concern about freedom of expression in Egypt made it to the State Department’s Daily Press Briefing with Toria Nuland. Below is the quick exchange:
QUESTION: The TV satirist Bassem Youssef was (inaudible) for insulting Islam and President Morsy and for that reason he was questioned or interrogated for over five hours. Do you have anything to say about that?
MS. NULAND: Thank you for that. We are concerned that the public prosecutor appears to have questioned and then released on bail Bassam Youssef on charges of insulting Islam and President Morsy. This coupled with recent arrest warrants issued for other political activists is evidence of a disturbing trend of growing restrictions on the freedom of expression.
As I said last Thursday, we’re also concerned that the Government of Egypt seems to be investigating these cases while it has been slow or inadequate in investigating attacks on demonstrators outside of the presidential palace in December 2012, other cases of extreme police brutality, and illegally blocked entry of journalists to media cities. So there does not seem to be an evenhanded application of justice here.
On April 1st, The Daily Show aired an 11:06 episode on Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, and Bassem Youssef. If you missed it, see the clip below. We laughed so hard we needed a roll of duct tape to keep our spleen from bursting!
Then @USEmbassyCairo got itself in the eye of a Twitterstorm. Again. Wait, how did that happened? Wanna bet that the handler of @USEmbassyCairo was paying too close an attention to the Department’s spokesperson the day before and found a creative way to impress that official message to the
Morse Morsi Government? It may have crossed his/her mind that this could start a Twitter war of sorts but hey, no pain, no gain. Besides, haven’t we heard often enough that the State Department is willing to “to make mistakes of commission rather than omission?” So on April 2, @USEmbassyCairo tweeted this:
Apparently, over at the presidential palace in Cairo, people had a hyper sensitive reaction to comedians making fun of hats and people. So the Egyptian Presidency lobbed the following tweet:
The Twitterverse sat up and waited for a fight. But – it did not get any, because, @USEmbassyCairo disappeared without leaving a forwarding address:
Then the Twitterverse got all crazy. Fortunately, the embassy did not become a worldwide trend over there (what a thing to put in your EER), but just take a look at a sampling of tweets here. Talks about lobotomy, long leash, MB pressure, caving in, being chicken, and more, not anything terribly good.
The Cable’s John Rogin reported that the decision to take down the Twitter page did not come from Foggy Bottom. He did not include in his report if he saw clean hands there:
A State Department official told The Cable Wednesday that the decision to take down Embassy Cairo’s Twitter page was made by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson without the consultation of the State Department in Washington. Foggy Bottom is urging Embassy Cairo to put the page back up, lest it appear that the United States is caving to the online pressure.
“This not a permanent shutdown. Embassy Cairo considers this to be temporary. They want to put new procedures in place,” the official said.
What’s that? Every time there’s a Twitter conniption, they want to put new procedures in place?
We do not doubt that the decision to pull the page down comes from the Front Office. Can you imagine if Foggy Bottom micromanage all embassy Twitter accounts worldwide? The instruction to go forth and tweet came down from the mother ship, true, it does not mean that all outposts necessarily know what they’re doing. We suspect that taking down the Twitter page was a knee jerk reaction from US Embassy Cairo’s Front Office. If it’s not online, it must now be gone. Playing with 21st century tools with guidance from a 20th century manual makes for a lot of burned hands.
The next time some social media guru preach something silly like, the State Department is willing to “to make mistakes of commission rather than omission” — make sure you send him or her to Cairo, Yemen and the likes, make him/her practice the “craft” that he/she preaches and see how that works in real life.
Tarek Radwan, the associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center posted an apt comment about this incident over in Tahrirsquared.com and even proffered a radical suggestion:
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.
Well, try it, try it, if you can.
As of this writing, @USEmbassy Cairo is back online with over 48,000 followers restored but scrubbed of tweets made after March 26.
@EgyPresidency has also scrubbed its “political propaganda” tweet and has now released a statement on Facebook “on the questioning of the stand-up comedian” and says in part:
The Presidency reaffirms that Egypt after the revolution has become a state of law with independent Judiciary. Hence, the Prosecution’s summoning of any Egyptian citizen regardless of his title or fame is the decision of the Prosecutor General, who operates independently from the presidency.
That one was greeted with hooting over in Facebook .
Instead of taking down the page, perhaps @USEmbassyCairo could have pointed out that in 1798 when America was a very young country, the laws of the land empowered the executive branch to limit free speech? Not as encouragement for repression, of course, but to show that we’ve come a long way since those obnoxious laws from our past. In those days calling our President a “repulsive pedant, a gross hypocrite and an unprincipled oppressor” could get somebody indicted, fined $200 and sentenced to nine months in jail. Imagine if that were still true today. We could cover our deficit and we’ll have a thriving jail industry.
We are seriously tempted to suggest that the @USEmbassyCairo and @EgyPresidency get themselves a red phone line at a ready for incidents like this. If they both stay on Twitter, there will be many more skirmishes like this. Unless @USEmbassyCairo gets a lobotomy as suggested online, which we do not/not recommend.
But what probably is going to keep us awake all night is the fate of Patricia Kabra, the Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. We’ve seen US Embassy Cairo’s willingness to throw its previous PA advisor under the bus once before (the regularly assigned PAO was sidelined on the job). If she get sent packing, we’ll see a trend in the most perilous PA assignment in the State Department.