Egyptian Gov’t Complained to U.S. Embassy Before Embassy Shut Down Twitter Feed

By Patrick Goodenough | April 5, 2013 | 4:43 AM EDT

A screenshot from “The Daily Show” segment aired Monday, in which Jon Stewart mocked President Mohammed Morsi over the legal action taken against Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef, pictured behind Stewart. (Image: The Daily Show)

( – The State Department confirmed Thursday that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government had phoned the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to complain about postings on the embassy’s Twitter account before the embassy this week briefly shut the feed down and removed at least one offending tweet.

“Apparently, they did make a complaint,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. “I think it was a sort of a phone call complaining, and the answer was, ‘We’re looking into it.’”

“Looking into it” resulted in the Twitter feed being temporarily shut down on Wednesday, and when it reappeared it had been purged. The embassy’s actions prompted derisive comments on social media sites, with critics accusing it of kowtowing to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The posting that raised the government’s particular ire contained a link to a segment from Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show,” in which he mocked Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi over legal action being taken against a popular Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef, accusing of insulting the president.

“You’re the president of Egypt, the inheritor of one of the greatest lands and people in recorded history,” Stewart riffed. “Egypt built the great pyramids – maybe you could get some of the folks who built those to work on getting you a thicker skin.”

“It’s inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda,” Morsi’s office then said in a tweet responding to the embassy’s one linking to the clip from “The Daily Show.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s party political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), also responded with a tweet calling the embassy posting “undiplomatic” and “unwise.”

Nuland earlier in the week had responded at length to questions about the Twitter dispute, saying the embassy had concluded that “the decision to tweet it [the link to “The Daily Show”] in the first place didn’t accord with post management of the site.”

But Thursday was the first time she confirmed that the Egyptian government had directly contacted the embassy to complain, before the mission took down the feed.

Asked whether there had been any interaction since over the issue, either between the State Department and the Egyptians, or between the State Department and the embassy, Nuland said no.

Nuland earlier noted that this was not the first time there had been “differences between the Twitter team and senior post management” at the mission in Cairo.

“We’ve had some glitches with the way the Twitter feed has been managed,” she told Wednesday’s daily briefing. “This is regrettably not the first time.”

(Last September 11, when Egyptians protesting an online video clip denigrating Mohammed breached the Cairo embassy compound walls, the embassy was in hot water over released remarks – including tweets – viewed by critics as overly apologetic. The administration later repudiated them, calling the message “unbalanced” and the words “mischosen.”)

Nuland said that diplomatic missions themselves decide the content of their own Twitter accounts – “and they are expected to use good policy judgment in doing that.”

At the same time, she indicated that the Cairo embassy’s decision on “taking down the Twitter feed altogether was not in line with department policy,” and that the department had relayed that message to the mission.

Since the brief blackout on Wednesday, the embassy has posted just two tweets, both responding to questions about consular matters.


Even before the embassy tweeted the link to “The Daily Show,” the State Department and Nuland personally had come under fire this week from the Muslim Brotherhood and FJP for criticizing Egypt over the Youssef crackdown.

Youssef, a popular comedian who is himself often compared to Stewart, complied with an arrest warrant and summons, was questioned and released on bail on Sunday. He was accused of insulting the president on his satirical television show, spreading false news designed to disrupt public order, and denigrating Islam.

Amid fresh online ridiculing of the complaint about insulting Morsi – and the airing Monday of Stewart’s Egypt-themed segment – the Muslim Brotherhood and FJP tried to move the focus away from the president and emphasize the denigrating Islam charge, one that is far more likely to resonate with even non-Islamist Muslims.

“The U.S. State Department spokeswoman’s comments suggest that this is simply a matter of insulting a president, while the main issue in the legal complaints is contempt of the religion of Islam and denigrating religious rites,” the FJP said in a statement Tuesday.

On Wednesday another comedian – and a guest on Youssef’s show – Ali Qandil, turned himself in for questioning after an arrest warrant was issued. Accused of “defamation” of religion, Qandil denied the charge, saying he was mocking the exploitation of religion, not religion itself.

Both Youssef and Qandil have denied insulting Islam.

The concept of defaming Islam has roiled relations between the Islamic world and the West for well over a decade. A drive by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for an international prohibition of religious defamation received a boost post-9/11, and again after Danish newspapers in 2005 published cartoons satirizing Mohammed.

The OIC campaign, which clashed with Western free speech principles but produced a string of U.N. resolutions, was based on the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, an OIC text that says all human rights – including freedom of expression – must be subjected to Islamic law (shari’a).

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow