U.S. Embassy in Cairo goes rogue on Twitter

November 28, 2012

The U.S. Embassy in Egypt has earned a reputation for going rogue on Twitter, and with this latest bout of political unrest, @USEmbassyCairo is at it again.

A series of tweets this morning seemed to imply that the person behind the account considers Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi at risk of becoming a dictator. That differs from the State Department’s official statement, Josh Rogin writes at Foreign Policy, and seems to take a much harsher stance than spokeswoman Victoria Nulandsaid did in a vague and “carefully worded” response to the president’s moves last week.

“We want to see the constitutional process in #Egypt move forward in a way that does not overly concentrate power in one set of hands,” the account posted yesterday morning, earning a handful of incredulous responses from followers in Egypt and abroad. “The Egyptian people made clear in the January 25th revolution that they have had enough of dictatorship,” it followed up a few hours later, apparently taking sides with the protesters against Morsi.

Unlike the networked U.S. embassies in places such as London, Pretoria and Phom Phen, the State Department’s Cairo branch has not historically toed the line on Twitter. When other embassies post staid headlines and press releases, @USEmbassyCairo sends West Wing clips and cheerful factoids about phonographs. And while engaging followers is far from the norm on official government accounts, @USEmbassyCairo has made a point of replying to many of the journalists and belligerent citizens who tweet at it.

The account gained further notoriety in September in light of a public affairs officer’s controversial memo condemning “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” Several tweets promoting and defending the memo were later deleted, writes Buzzfeed, and both President Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton were called in to sort out the ensuing imbroglio.

The repeat indiscretions might suggest a lack of remorse on the part of the Cairo Embassy -- or a stubborn belief in the power of social media. Twitter and Facebook doubtlessly have plenty to offer modern governments; recent months have seen official accounts used in everything from disaster relief (@FEMA) to tourism PR (@sweden).

But as much as these accounts are a force for transparency, they run the risk of muddying the waters, too. @USEmbassyCairo communicates the personal views of embassy staffers as if they were official positions, creating some obvious contradictions in U.S. diplomacy there. That could prove a headache for the State Department -- according to Foreign Policy, it’s already defending the latest set of tweets. In either case, it provides for more interesting reading than an account like @StateDept.

“We call for Egyptians to resolve their differences over these important issues peacefully, through democratic dialogue,” reads that account’s latest tweet on the issue. Meanwhile, on the Cairo account:

 

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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