The U.S. Embassy in Cairo shut down its provocative Twitter account for more than two hours Wednesday, one day after posting a clip from Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” in which host Jon Stewart bashed the government of Mohammed Morsi for arresting a popular Egyptian satirist who’s often compared to Stewart.
But the closing of the @USEmbassyCairo account was only temporary after officials in Washington expressed concern that shutting down the Twitter feed, which has 48,000 followers, would be seen as buckling to complaints from Morsi supporters about U.S. interference. By midevening, the embassy had reopened the account – though without the link to “The Daily Show.”
Morsi supporters had complained that posting the link inappropriately interfered with Egyptian affairs.
Stewart’s segment was prompted by the arrest Saturday of satirist Bassem Youssef on charges that he had insulted the president and Islam through his widely popular program modeled after “The Daily Show.” Among Youssef’s offenses was mocking Morsi for wearing an unusual hat during a visit to Pakistan. (Bassem Youssef is not related to this story’s writer, Nancy A. Youssef.)
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Youssef was released Sunday on $2,200 bail after questioning. But the charges have sparked outrage from some Egyptians who charge that the Morsi government is infringing on freedom of speech, a key principle that was supposed to emerge from 2011 uprising that led to the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The embassy’s decision to post a link Tuesday to the 10-minute segment appeared to blur the line between official U.S. policy and the opinions of Cairo State Department employees, many of whom privately agree with Stewart’s assessment that Youssef’s arrest infringed on freedom of expression.
Tweets from the embassy have been the source of tension between the embassy and Morsi supporters before. The embassy Twitter feed is often more direct than Obama administration statements emanating from Washington on events in Egypt, creating confusion over how much a tweet reflects official policy. The embassy frequently engages in lively Twitter dialogue with @Ikhwanweb, the Twitter feed of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization through which Morsi rose to prominence before his assumption of the presidency in June.
In November, as an anti-Morsi protest movement was gaining momentum, the embassy sent out a series of tweets that some interpreted as suggesting that Morsi was a dictator. “The Egyptian people made clear in the January 25th revolution that they have had enough of dictatorship,” read one tweet.
The embassy’s tweets also have roiled U.S. waters. On Sept. 11, amid threats made to the embassy over an inflammatory anti-Islamic video, the embassy condemned the video. That move, which came hours before protesters stormed the embassy complex, was described by then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney as “apology diplomacy,” and the tweet was criticized by the State Department. In the days after the embassy attack, the embassy also took on the Muslim Brotherhood over what it felt were tweets that were not supportive of the United States, pointedly responding to an expression of support in English with a tweet that read: “.@ikhwanweb Thanks. By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”
It’s unclear who at the embassy approves tweets sent out on the embassy account.
The Morsi government has since tried to distance itself from Youssef’s arrest, saying it had no say over the decisions of the prosecutor, Talaat Ibrahim.
“All the current well-publicized claims were initiated by citizens rather than the presidency,” Morsi’s office said in a statement. “The presidency has not filed any complaint against stand-up comedian Bassem Youssef. The president reiterates the importance of freedom of expression and fully respects press freedom.”
Youssef’s show first appeared in March 2011, one month after Mubarak resigned. It looks and sounds like “The Daily Show,” and Youssef has been a guest on the U.S. program.
Despite his arrest, Youssef was expected Wednesday to proceed with the taping of his show, which is known simply as “The Program.” Many Egyptians wonder, however, whether the government will allow the show to air as scheduled on Friday.