Diplomacy Fail in Cairo as the U.S. and Egypt Clash Via Twitter

The Egyptian president’s Twitter account lashed out in response to a tweet from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Vivian Salama and Mike Giglio report on the social media diplomatic incident.

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A diplomatic incident between Egypt and the United States has unfolded on Twitter for the world to see, prompting the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to temporarily shut down its Twitter feed after a tense exchange with the official feed for Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

The spat started when the U.S. Embassy Twitter account, @USEmbassyCairo, posted a link Tuesday to a video by The Daily Show comedian Jon Stewart, in which Stewart takes up the cause of Bassem Youssef, an Egyptian satirist whom Stewart describes in the video as “my friend”—and who is also under investigation for claims that he insulted Islam and President Morsi. “The world is watching,” Stewart says in the video, addressing Morsi. “Nobody wants to see Egypt plunge into darkness.”

Morsi’s feed lashed right back, complaining that it was “inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda.” The exchange then went wildly viral, drawing further attention to a standoff between Morsi’s government and Youssef, the popular host of a Daily Show-inspired talk show. Youssef’s case has created a firestorm since he was issued an arrest warrant and hauled into court last week.

The exchange between the Morsi and U.S. Embassy accounts prompted a heated debate on Twitter. America, one commenter wrote, “is playing a dirty role as always. Shut up and keep away.” To which another commenter replied: “What about the presidency engaging with a comic show?”

The Embassy’s Twitter page disappeared briefly on Wednesday, but has since been restored—albeit without The Daily Show link. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the incident a “glitch.” But a report from Foreign Policy, citing a State Department official, said that Anne Patterson, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, had actually ordered the page’s closure herself, only to be pushed by officials in Washington “to put the page back up, lest it appear that the United States is caving to the online pressure.”

The Muslim Brotherhood—the powerful Islamist group that backs Morsi—has meanwhile continued to make an issue of the incident on its English-language account, @IkhwanWeb, repeatedly calling the post “inappropriate.”

This is not the first time the two Twitter accounts have bumped heads. In September, Ikhwanweb reposted a message from the group’s deputy head, Khairat El-Shater, saying he was “relieved none of @USembassycairo staff was hurt” in the violent protests that erupted outside the embassy in response to the YouTube airing of a film that insulted the Prophet Muhammad. But at the same time, the Brotherhood’s Arabic language account was praising the demonstration and calling for a million-man march. This prompted an angry retort to Ikhwanweb from the U.S. Embassy account—“Thanks. By the way have you checked your Arabic feeds? I hope you know, we read those too.”

The Youssef case has been brewing since late last year, when it first emerged that the prosecutor was considering legal complaints against him—which at the time was headline-grabbing news in itself. But human rights advocates have spent months warning of a media squeeze in Egypt, and since Youssef’s arrest warrant was issued, he has become the issue’s international face.

Jon Stewart—Youssef’s avowed mentor, who hosted him on The Daily Show last year—dedicated the opening 11 minutes of his show Monday night to defending the Egyptian comedian, while other influential figures such as CNN’s Christiane Amanpour have also come to his defense. The Twitter spat with the State Department, however, has taken the subject to new heights—and given it a surge of viral momentum online.

Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa director for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says that the Egyptian government’s insistence on pursuing Youssef—and willingness to take on even the State Department in doing it—shows that it is intent on pursuing its media agenda no matter what the cost. “This is an indication of how far they are willing to go in order to silence critics, and how much they are willing to risk in the process,” he says. “They are willing to risk a relationship with the United States, and their image distorted in the international community, just to silence one critic.”

Meanwhile the United States has seemed unsure, some analysts say, of how to respond to these apparent crackdowns from the new government in Egypt—something that may have briefly shone through on Twitter. “The U.S. Embassy in Cairo thought it could take the moral high ground and join the fun-poking at the absurdity of the charges against Bassem Youssef,” says Adel Iskandar, a Middle East scholar at Georgetown University. “But it is not fun and games in Cairo.”

With Mike Giglio