Egypt’s President: Tweeting an Offline Nation


The recent events which took place at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Abbasiya left many complaining about the apparent inaction of the country’s political leadership. The perceived absence of police at the funeral held at the Cathedral last Sunday and the consequent attack on the building, resulted in uncharacteristically harsh words from the Coptic Orthodox Pope, as well as criticisms from several prominent figures in civil society. On Wednesday , the official Twitter account of the Egyptian presidency announced in English that President Mohamed Morsi would be answering questions asked between 9 and 9.30 PM Cairo local time.

The announcement was met with varying reactions, from surprise to anticipation. Some in the Egyptian Twittersphere voiced disdain at the way the president was choosing to communicate with the people, most of whom don’t have a Twitter account, particularly since estimates in 2012 placed the number of Egyptians on Twitter at 215,000. Others, however, saw it as a step in the right direction, showing a willingness to reach out to the public.

The Egyptian president has been subject to a lot of criticism, mostly for failing to deal with the country’s pressing economic problems and the ongoing political stalemate. Recent crises have added to the already growing public discontent. Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian satirist and TV presenter,  charged with “insulting the president” finds himself threatened with yet another lawsuit. Furthermore, the issue of the public prosecutor remains a point of contention as the man appointed to the position by President Morsi in the aftermath of his controversial constitutional declaration last year, refuses to leave his post after a court reversed his appointment

Unsurprisingly, the hashtag “Ask president Morsi” and its variations contained many questions about these matters. Some rebuked the president for his apparent failure to uphold press freedom, like political analyst Elijah Zarwan who said “How many legal complaints against journalists came from your office? Or will you be ordering prosecutor to shelve other suits?” while others criticized him for the public prosecutor debacle, like @Ta3aleb who asked: “You were against the public prosecutor before because he was appointed by Mubarak and the first public prosecutor in your time is one you appointed yourself. What [about that]?”  Aside from that, a wide range of other problems were highlighted by Twitter users, including electricity cuts, the failing economy, street children and the fight against corruption.

Not all took the hashtag seriously though: Egyptian social media users are known for their use of humor in the form of satire and puns. This case was no different, humorous questions and remarks pertaining to the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in president Morsi’s decision making process as well as puns about the Renaissance project could be found in great numbers. Many of those tweets contained references to expressions the president had used in his speeches, notably the “fingers” which he claimed were in the country to destabilize it and the “crowded alley” where enemies of the revolution where plotting to stifle its progress.

Some of the president’s supporters used the opportunity to praise this initiative which they felt was a step toward transparency. Some voiced criticism while at the same time clarifying that they understood the president to be under immense pressure, in an effort to defend him. Others expressed their approval in a humorous way, like Truthcaller who said: “I’m glad we have a president who directly answers the people’s questions, but I don’t want the president to repeat this, get addicted to Twitter and then become like [ElBaradei].” 

After a large amount of questions and remarks were sent, the president started answering some of them. In his first answer, Morsi opted for a slightly less controversial topic, reassuring a citizen that a ministerial team was on standby day and night to make sure electricity cuts would be kept at a minimum during the summer months. He then went on to reaffirm his commitment to the principle of rule of law when asked about the fight against corruption, which, he added, would be long and tiresome. “The legacy of corruption is heavy and its road is long and I won’t stop until I have cleansed all of Egypt.” Interestingly, while answering another question regarding the “corruption files”, he said: “For everything there is a right time, and now it is the time to build and to unite Egypt’s sons and not to open up wounds.” 

Questions regarding the economy and the state of the Egyptian pound were met with reassurances that an economic plan had been devised to stabilize the currency. The president asked for patience and stressed the need for hard work and perseverance. He also stressed the need for stability for the results of the economic policies to be noticed. “The plans and programs are public together with the standards and indicators of success. We need the country to calm down a little so we can implement the different stages.” 

Morsi also justified his earlier statement dropping all complaints against journalists that were filed by his legal team. He, however, did not address the fact that the presidency had continuously denied that they had filed any of these complaints. He said: “I leave it to public opinion to judge the perpetrators. I have sent a message with my decision and I hope it reaches the right address.” This was most likely in reference to the Bassem Youssef case, which, as mentioned above, has led to a wave of criticism of the president, both domestically and internationally. The president also said that he would leave judgement to public opinion. Instead of a shift in his policy, some Twitter users noted that the president’s decision to drop the charges was nothing more than a façade. According to them, other charges, filed by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers who may not be officially tied to the group, would still have the same effect but without damaging the presidency’s reputation when it comes to freedom of speech. To that effect, Egyptian blogger Nervana Mahmoud noted “#Morsi decision to withdraw all law suits filed against journalists is a farce. Most cases were filed by ‘private citizens.’" 

A citizen asked the president about the cooperation of State Intelligence in the search for the identity of what he referred to as “thugs” who come out on Fridays. The president notably replied affirming that he enjoyed the support of “all Egyptians, the people and the institutions.” This contradicts the theory of the “deep state” which the claims that state institutions are all working together or coordinating in order to bring about the failure of the revolution or of Morsi’s regime. This is a theory often espoused by the president himself as well as the leading Muslim Brotherhood members and of its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party. Claims of a conspiracy theory involving domestic and foreign “fingers” have been continuously repeated since the president came to power, yet with no concrete evidence presented to the public. Blogger Loai Nagati asked in one of his tweets: “Where are the details of the dangerous conspiracy you stopped when you issued your constitutional declaration which has caused civil strife resulting in the death of some Egyptians?” 

The president has so far answered just under 30 questions, each answer comprising of just one tweet. The subjects he chose to address were mostly about the economy, corruption and injustice. Mr. Morsi opted for a mix between standard modern Arabic and the Egyptian colloquial style in his answers which were quite general and vague, partly due to their brevity. In some cases the president promised he would personally look into certain complaints. The use of the colloquial style gave an impression of familiarity not usually found in the formal language used in official statements. The presidency has announced that Mr. Morsi will be answering questions daily via Twitter.

Twitter, as a platform, does not necessarily afford users a lot room to answer in any depth or detail. Whether or not this was a conscious decision on the part of the presidency – while attempting to give off an at least superficially tech-savvy impression of the presidential office – is also unclear. While the half hour Q&A may have created a bit of buzz on Twitter, the majority of Egyptians are oblivious to the fact that it happened. While all questions were asked and answered in Arabic, there was an interesting choice on the part of the official Egyptian Presidency’s Twitter account to announce the session in English – so it may not have truly been to the benefit of an Egyptian audience at all.

Sara Labib is an Egyptian blogger and commentator on Arab affairs. She is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Law in Europe. Her work can be found on and she can be followed on Twitter @SaraLabib

Photo: Jonathan Rashad

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