U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s controversial Twitter account deleted after one too many public spats

April 3, 2013

A screenshot of two tweets sent Sept. 11, 2012, by the official feed of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The tweets, quickly deleted, defended a controversial statement the same embassy employee had issued. (via Buzzfeed)

The official Twitter account for the U.S. Embassy in Cairo appears to have been deleted. Attempting to view the @USEmbassyCairo feed returns an error message, "Sorry that page doesn't exist." The new U.S. ambassador to Egypt had decided to shut down the account, but, Foreign Policy reports, "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."

The account was unusually outspoken and provocative for an official U.S. government Twitter feed, at times implicitly or even explicitly criticizing the Egyptian government or the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. Most recently, it had linked to a "Daily Show" clip that lambasted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Host Jon Stewart had called Morsi "petty" and a "crazy guy." The tweet was condemned by the official accounts of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the Egyptian president's office.

The Cairo embassy Twitter account had sparked other diplomatic incidents. In September, as Egyptian protesters against the anti-Islam film "Innocence of Muslims" gathered around the embassy compound that they would later storm, the embassy issued a bizarre statement condemning the film and referencing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The Twitter feed defended the statement throughout the day, sending an increasingly defensive series of messages, some of which it later deleted. It was later reported that the statement and the Twitter feed were authored by the same embassy employee. The feed got into a brief tiff with the Muslim Brotherhood's official account.

The incident became fodder for the U.S. presidential campaign, with Mitt Romney arguing that the feed represented "apology diplomacy" by President Obama. Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin later reported that State Department officials in Washington had discouraged the embassy from sending those statement and was unhappy with the increasingly rogue social media push.

Another spat came in November, when the account sent a series of tweets that seemed to suggest Morsi was becoming a dictator. The statements severely overstepped more official U.S. diplomatic language on Morsi's behavior, risking mixed messages from Washington to Cairo.

The incidents were not isolated. As I wrote last year for the Atlantic, the feed can at times feel less like an outlet for official embassy news than the personal and highly opinionated account of an American who happens to be working at the embassy. It quotes or mourns famous authors, sends out silly links about "tweeting plants!!" and makes pointed references to West Wing episodes, one of which seemed to criticize Egypt's decision to adopt an American-style presidential system.

More social interaction and more informality is a good thing in social media terms, but the goal of the @USEmbassyCairo feed is presumably not to be good at social media, it's to be good at official government diplomacy. Those aren't always the same thing. The feed often overstepped official State Department language on such sensitive subjects as Morsi and the rule of law. That doesn't mean its statements were necessarily wrong, but it risked contradicting or at least confusing formal U.S. diplomatic strategy in Egypt, which is set in Washington.

Still, deleting the account outright sends its own strong signals, which might not be desirable. It risks sending the message to Egyptians that the U.S. can be pressured into silence on sensitive issues, in this case the government's arrest of a prominent political satirist who had criticized Morsi. And it seems bound to reinforce domestic U.S. criticism that the Obama administration bows to criticism from unfriendly Middle Eastern regimes.

Update: Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell and the Wall Street Journal's Tom Gara, both of whom have experience in Egypt, have suggested a theory that the U.S. ambassador, Anne Patterson, may not have fully understood the implications of shutting down the feed. For someone unfamiliar with Twitter, it might seem reasonable to disable a trouble-making account until its problems could be resolved, and might not be obvious the degree to which this could be seen as a case of self-censorship. It's a plausible theory and would help explain the odd decision.

The embassy feed and its strong voice, as well as its habit of engaging directly with Egyptian citizens and officials alike, seemed to represent a somewhat extreme version of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emphasis on direct diplomacy and social media outreach. But Clinton, of course, isn't the secretary anymore. John Kerry, a longtime senator who has tended to emphasize more traditional state-to-state diplomacy, now runs the State Department. That doesn't mean he cut the cord on the @USEmbassyCairo feed – the decision was reportedly made by the ambassador in Cairo and without Washington's consent – but it would not be shocking if Kerry were making some changes to State Department culture, and if those changes had trickled down to the Cairo Embassy. Or maybe this latest fight with Egypt's most powerful institutions was just one too many.

Update: The account is now back online, although recent controversial tweets have been deleted. As of this writing, the account appears to be currently in the process of deleting old tweets. There are an awful lot to go through.

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Max Fisher | April 3, 2013