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U.S. retreats after Egypt Twitter flap

A retweet by someone in America's Cairo embassy pointing to a "Daily Show" episode becomes a new source of friction in U.S.-Egyptian relations.

U.S. State Department building in Washington, D.C. Getty Images
Humor sometimes does not travel well.

Update: 11:30 AM PT Earlier today, the U.S. embassy in Cairo pulled a tweet that managed to annoy Egypt's government. The apparently innocuous link to a "Daily Show" episode from earlier in the week, which tweaked Egypt's government for going after a prominent television critic, had quickly transmogrified into a mini-diplomatic crisis yesterday after Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's office tweeted a tart response: "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda."

In the last year the two governments have butted heads on a number of issues, the latest being legislation pushed by Egypt's Islamist-leaning government to regulate nongovernmental organizations. Also, a new law, adopted by the Shura Council, limits the ability of people to gather and demonstrate.

The State Department subsequently described the tweet as "not in line with Department policy," according to State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, who fielded questions about the episode at a briefing in Washington earlier today. She referred questions about why the tweet was deleted back to the Cairo embassy. "I'm not going to get into parsing the Jon Stewart show, other than to say it was publicly available content, and decisions about what to tweet are made at posts," she said.

What follows is an edited version of the Q&A at the State Department briefing.

Q: All right. As much as I would like to start with the trip -- I'm sure other people will get back to it -- I have to start with perhaps a less weightier matter than the Secretary's Mideast peace efforts, and that is Jon Stewart. What is going on with the Twitter -- Embassy Cairo's Twitter feed? It's up, it's down, it's back up again, it's deleted the tweet that had the link to Monday's monologue about President Morsy. What's the deal there?

Victoria Nuland: Well, first to say that Embassy Cairo's Twitter feed is back up now. We've had some glitches with the way the Twitter feed has been managed. This is regrettably not the first time. We are now -- or I should say Embassy Cairo is now working to remedy those glitches and they're looking at how they manage the site, but just to advise that the site is now back up and is carrying U.S. government content again.

Q: Can you explain why that -- the tweet -- was deleted?

Nuland: I would refer you to Embassy Cairo. I think that they came to the conclusion that the decision to tweet it in the first place didn't accord with post management of the site.

Q: OK. That's understandable. But you're aware the Egyptian government -- that President Morsy's office response, right, (is) that this is political propaganda, it's unacceptable for a diplomatic mission to be spreading it. Is that why it was deleted?

Nuland: As you know, the decisions about Twitter content are made out at post. I can't speak to the decision to retweet Jon Stewart to start with. But Jon Stewart is a comedy show in the U.S.

Q: Right.

Nuland: As you know, it is publicly available content. With regard to our position on the Jon Stewart counterpart, if you will, in Egypt, we've spoken very clearly about that here, both on Monday, and again yesterday, the secretary spoke to our concerns about application of justice in Egypt.

Q: Right.

Nuland: So we stand by all of that.

Q: But I guess the question is -- I mean, what Mr. Stewart said in his monologue was not very different for -- perhaps it was a bit indelicate, and it's a comedy show, he was making fun of it -- but the points that he made were almost identical to the points that you yourself made here from the podium on Monday, which drew a harsh reaction from the Egyptians as well. So I'm just wondering, do you agree with the Egyptian presidency's characterization of the content of the clip as being political propaganda and unacceptable for an embassy to put out in whatever form, when the content was essentially the same as the points that you made on Monday, and also what certainly are in line with the comments that Secretary Kerry made yesterday at the press conference?

Nuland: Again, let me just say we stand by the points that were made here, by the points that the secretary made yesterday with regard to what's going on in Egypt. I'm not going to get into parsing the Jon Stewart show, other than to say it was publicly available content, and decisions about what to tweet are made at posts.

Q: OK. Well, then my last one on this is -- so what's the upshot now that they will not be -- the embassy won't be tweeting things that -- or retweeting things that are publicly available because they are publicly available?

Nuland: No. I think they are looking, again, at the procedures for how they decide what they want to tweet from their embassy site. We'll see what they decide to do there.

Q: And you believe that the embassy has come to the decision that it was mistake to tweet this link in the first place?

Nuland: I'm going to refer you to them with regard to that.

Q: Well, but more on the issue of kind of the content that will come out now of the feed, will there be some kind of approval process? Will there be some kind of oversight? Will that continue to be done in Cairo, or will the State Department here in Washington have more oversight of it? Because this is not the first time that you've had some problems with this particular embassy's Twitter feed.

Nuland: This is not the first glitch. That's right. I think that's why the embassy is now reviewing its procedures. That said, Department policy is that main State manages Twitter feeds that come from main State, that the embassies and consulates and their senior leadership manage the content that is on their feeds, and they are expected to use good policy judgment in doing that.

Q: I'm not quite clear on your answer...on the issue of whether you agree with the Egyptian government that it is diplomatically inappropriate.

Nuland: To retweet publicly available content? I'm not going to get into that fight at all.

Q: Do you see this issue as perhaps sort of something that should sort of incentivize the opposition, the non-Islamist opposition, to participate in the upcoming elections? Do you see the regression of democratic freedoms to be an incentive for that opposition to participate in the future?

Nuland: Well, if you will recall, when Secretary Kerry was in Cairo, he made the case that first and foremost the elections, when they go forward, have to go forward in a way that is credible, that is open, that is transparent, that is broadly supported by the population. But then he said that, in the context of them going forward under those standards, that Egyptian citizens should participate. We always encourage democratic participation.

I think the larger point here, though, is the point that the secretary made yesterday, that we made here on Monday and yesterday as well, that we have quite strong concerns about a number of civil and human rights issues in Egypt and the direction that they're going. We talked about the justice issues. We also have deep concerns about the draft legislation that would restrict the ability of NGOs to operate, and we have concerns about laws that are being reviewed now that would limit demonstrations.

Q: Are you aware that the number of lawsuits against defamation have quadrupled, or - in fact, in the last year, it is probably four times the whole amount of the Mubarak presidency, and they are actually pushed by the Islamic brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood, to file these lawsuits?

Nuland: We are aware, which is why we spoke out so strongly about media freedom the last couple of days, including in the secretary's voice.

Q: You've referred me now to the embassy in Cairo as to the specific tweet, but what's the opinion of this building, of management and main State, for which you speak? Does this building, or do people -- the senior officials in this building -- believe that that tweet with the clip to the 'Daily Show' link was inappropriate?

Nuland: I'm, again, not going to parse decisions made in Embassy Cairo.

Q: Well, I understand that. I'm not asking you to talk about their decision to put it up, I'm asking what people in this -- the senior leadership of this building, for whom you are the spokeswoman -- what do they think?

Nuland: Thank you for reminding me of that.

Q: Do they think that it was inappropriate?

Nuland: Look, from where we are sitting here, the secretary spoke very clearly for the Department, for the administration, on our concerns. Whether or not one needs to use a publicly available comedian to make some of the same points, that was a decision that was made out at Cairo.

Q: OK. So you do agree then that the points that he was making in his monologue were essentially the same points that you were making from the podium on Monday?

Nuland: I, frankly, took a 30-second look at it and didn't parse it myself.

Q: But you're calling it a glitch.

Nuland: I'm calling a glitch the fact that they obviously put up something that they later took down, that they took down the whole site, which should not probably have been the way that went, and that in the past there has been differences between the Twitter team and senior post management. So they're looking at all that.

Q: Were there some communications from this building, from senior officials here to the embassy, on whether that was a smart thing to do? And did those communications lead them to take down the tweet, or did they do that on their own?

Nuland: There were no instructions from this building with regard to that...There were no instructions with regard to giving the tweet; there were no instructions with regard to the site. The only instruction from this building was: Every embassy should have a Twitter feed, so why did you take it down?

Q: There were no instructions to put the feed back up?

Nuland: There was an instruction that taking down the Twitter feed altogether was not in line with Department policy.

Q: That's my question, Toria. Is there a concern that these glitches and actions of taking the feed down, then putting it back up, but still having the deleted feed -- is this presenting an image of the U.S. as bowing to criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Morsy government?

Nuland: Again, from the Department's perspective, we want to see all of our embassies have active Twitter feeds. We want to see post management, ambassadors and their deputies, decide what will be most impactful in terms of conveying the views of the U.S. government on those Twitter feeds and in terms of having a direct dialogue with the people of the country. So it was from that perspective that we thought that the right approach was to make editorial decisions that were in line with posts' views, but not to take down the feed altogether.

Q: I just want to know, are you aware if there was any formal kind of government-to-government complaint about the tweet, other than just the Egyptian presidency's comment? Nuland: Did they call the embassy? I don't know the answer to that.

Q: One more on Egypt. The Egyptian president's spokesman has said that freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution in Egypt, and there is a strong commitment toward it, and there will be no deviation from that. Do you see this statement reflects the situation on the ground?

Nuland: Well, thank you for that, Michel. I had meant to draw attention to the fact that the presidency did today enter the fray on this subject on the side of freedom of expression, so that's a positive move, and we want to see that reflected in Egyptian government policy.