Public Diplomacy Goes Public
Thursday, April 4th 2013
There is a little dust up going on over in Egypt these days. It appears to be a public fight between the U.S. embassy and the Egyptian Presidency – and the Muslim Brotherhood – over the arrest of an Egyptian television comedian.
But what makes it interesting in terms of modern diplomacy is the way it is being fought – via Twitter.
The basic facts are pretty clear. The American embassy tweeted a link to Jon Stewart’s comments on the Daily Show about the Egyptian government arresting a political satirist and comic named Bassem Youssef. Some say that Youssef is Egypt’s own version of Jon Stewart, making fun of the government and President Morsi. Other Egyptians (who apparently lack a sense of humor) charge Youssef with insulting the nation's head of state and Islam itself.
President Morsi’s official Twitter feed condemned the American embassy, saying "It's inappropriate for a diplomatic mission to engage in such negative political propaganda," according to “The Cable,” Foreign Policy Magazine’s blog.
In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood’s local political party also took a swipe at the American Embassy, calling the Stewart-link tweet “another undiplomatic & unwise move by @USEmbassyCairo, taking sides in an ongoing investigation & disregarding Egyptian law & culture."
The criticism was leveled at the Embassy in – what else? – a tweet, of course.
Now, there is a whole argument brewing about whether the State Department told the Embassy to shut down its Twitter account – it did indeed go off the web for a time -- or whether the Embassy pulled its own plug. And fingers are pointing: who might have made that decision? Anyway, it now seems the American embassy's Twitter account is alive and back on the web, even if it is missing some of its recent comedy tweets.
What I find noteworthy is the degree to which the embassy and one of its best ambassadors, Anne Patterson, are using social media to wage effective diplomacy.
Egypt is a prime example of a bilateral relationship where the host nation government does not appear to respond to normal diplomatic demarches. (You could add Russia, Pakistan, Iran and a few others to that list…)
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are in power today in large part because the United States pushed former strongman Mubarak to resign. Since then, however, the White House and the State Department became increasingly frustrated with Egypt’s unwillingness to pay attention to the normal back and forth of bilateral relations: economic and development assistance, military sales, democratic reforms, free market economics, human rights, anti-terrorism cooperation, regional stability, and so forth.
It is not unusual for American diplomacy to "up" the ante and begin to play public diplomacy hard ball, especially when traditional tools and enticements prove ineffective. As the Wikileaks trove of U.S. diplomatic correspondence makes clear, American diplomats have a clear-eyed take on the host nation’s key leaders, be they despots or democrats. Wikileaks shows FSO’s talk tough and lay it on the line when polite phrases and protocol are not getting the job done.
Public diplomacy officers – PAO’s, IO’s and CAO’s – have long been used as the ambassador’s “light cavalry brigade” in difficult situations with repressive regimes. They get sent out to probe for the regime’s weak points, to search out and embolden the intellectual dissidents, to identify underground political opposition, to sustain NGO’s and other non-official groups, to listen and learn from journalists and academic observers.
Usually, this kind of public diplomacy takes place quietly, out of the view of the cameras and away from the headlines. But, sometimes, it breaks out into the open. For several reasons in this case, that’s a good thing.
First, it is noteworthy that it was not the Egyptian foreign ministry that criticized the U.S. embassy’s Twitter messages. It was the Office of the President as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing that reacted. Now, that is evidence of effectiveness! The FSO in charge of the Twitter account should get a step increase on those grounds alone.
Second, because of Twitter, the entire Middle East knows what the United States thinks about Morsi and the lack of political and economic progress in Egypt. With only 140 characters to work with, there is not much room for platitudes.
Third, the democratic and progressive segments of the Egyptian population are encouraged and emboldened. They can see in the Twitter messages just exactly what the American government thinks of the Egyptian government’s priorities – something you won’t get from the Embassy’s anodyne web site or public comments by officials exiting from meetings.
It is said that when some enemies and critics of General Grant once called upon President Lincoln and urged him to oust Grant from his command, Lincoln declared, "I can't spare that man; he fights."
One hopes Secretary Kerry has the same regard for the Twitter officer in his Cairo embassy.