Note to American diplomats: Jon Stewart does not translate well.
Stewart had ridiculed Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed government Monday for arresting an Egyptian satirist instead of focusing on the country’s spreading crime problem. Comedian Bassam Youssef is well known in Egypt for tweaking the devout and often stern Islamists who took charge following the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak.
President Mohamed Morsi was not amused, and an unusual Twitter war broke out between the embassy and the president’s office.
“It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda,” Morsi’s office tweeted.
“We’ve had some glitches with the way the Twitter feed has been managed,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said when the dust settled Wednesday.
The Stewart tweet didn’t meet proper standards, Nuland said, but she insisted the department will not back away from the sometimes perilous practice of digital diplomacy. Each embassy is required to have a Twitter feed, she said, and Cairo was told to restore its feed shortly after it went dark Wednesday. When the feed returned, the Stewart link was gone.
“I think that they came to the conclusion that the decision to tweet it in the first place didn’t accord with (the embassy’s) management of the site,” Nuland said. She would not say whether it was pulled because of Morsi’s complaints, but did note that the Cairo embassy also got into trouble over tweets that offended the Egyptian government during protests last fall about an anti-Muslim video.
The spat was largely played for a laugh on the English-language version of Twitter, but reflects a deepening split between the Obama administration and an Arab ally that has been the mainstay of U.S. foreign policy in the Mideast for three decades.
“We share a very real concern in the Obama administration about the direction that Egypt is apparently moving in,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday in comments related directly to the Twitter controversy. “This is a key moment for Egypt. It’s really a tipping point for Egypt.”
Nuland and other U.S. officials have spoken increasingly bluntly about Egypt’s failure to curb rising sexual assaults against women. Kerry has said Egypt must also make hard economic decisions to avoid fiscal disaster, but his latest critique took stock of the country’s social and political chaos, too.
“It is our hope that there is still time to be able to turn the corner,” Kerry said. “But the recent arrests, the violence in the streets, the lack of inclusiveness with respect to the opposition in public ways that make a difference to the people of Egypt, are all of concern today.”
Morsi’s office denies playing a direct role in the Youssef case and pledged Wednesday to respect freedom of expression.
“The presidency reaffirms that Egypt after the revolution has become a state of law with independent judiciary,” Morsi’s office said, and the arrest of any citizen “regardless of his title or fame” is a matter for the courts.
Sharaf Al-Hourani contributed to this report from Cairo.