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Egypt Twitter flap shows lack of digital knowledge

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 11:50 p.m.

CAIRO — An Internet spat between the U.S. and Egyptian governments has some activists and analysts here questioning the wisdom and motives of American officials.

“It shows how unpredictable digital diplomacy can be,” said Tarek Radwan, an associate research director on the Middle East for the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based think tank.

The two governments' postings on the social media website Twitter followed last week's prosecutorial questioning of Egyptian political satirist Bassem Youssef.

Youssef, host of a popular comedy show on Egyptian television, is charged with insulting President Mohamed Morsy, defaming Islam and threatening Egypt's security. He is often likened to American satirist Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's “Daily Show.”

Stewart defended his fellow comedian and castigated Morsy on his program on Monday.

The U.S. Embassy here posted a link to Stewart's show on Twitter, provoking angry responses from Morsy's office and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

“It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda,” Morsy's office wrote. That post was soon deleted, but not before being widely re-tweeted.

The Stewart link was removed from the embassy's Twitter feed after a brief shutdown.

That led Egyptian activists to accuse U.S. officials of appeasing Morsy and the Brotherhood.

“It's incredible how this whole thing has played out,” said the Atlantic Council's Radwan. He described the social media setting as “almost childish, really.”

He questioned why an embassy staffer “found it important to post something like” the Stewart link “and why did (Ambassador) Anne Patterson feel the need to yank their Twitter account?”

Whoever manages the embassy's Twitter account, Radwan said, should “realize that it is not his or her personal account. You are representing a country in a diplomatic capacity.”

But he said the ambassador's apparent decision to suspend the account and to delete the Stewart link “reinforced the perception that she finds her relationship with Morsy and the government far more important than with the Egyptian youth.”

Radwan said it demonstrates a lack of understanding of social media, on which tweets can be easily stored as screen shots: “This is the older generation playing with the younger generation's toys, and the younger generation understands it a lot better than they do.”

The episode is not the embassy's first Twitter controversy.

In September, it posted a condemnation of an anti-Islam web video before protesters attacked the embassy. Critics here and in the United States derided that as “apology diplomacy.”

Other embassy Twitter posts have been criticized as crossing the line between personal opinion and official policy.

A State Department spokesman said on Thursday that “we've had some glitches with the way the Twitter feed has been managed” and that the embassy “is now working to remedy those glitches and … how they manage the site.”

The diplomatic dustup has not distracted Egypt's political opposition from condemning the Morsy government for trying to quash free speech.

A presidential spokesman has denied Morsy's involvement in the case.

Yet Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, noted that 24 cases of insulting the presidency were filed in the first 200 days of Morsy's presidency.

Only four cases were filed in 30 years under ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.

“The number of cases from 1897 to 2012 was 23,” Eid said. “In 200 days, the number of cases of insulting the ruler was more than (during) 115 years combined, with all the presidents and kings.

“Dictators always try to deflect attention away from the problems they created,” he said.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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