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In Egypt, the Government Issues Official Announcements on Facebook

BY Lisa Goldman | Monday, December 17 2012

Cairo protester's sign says "no to the constitution" (credit: Hossam El Hamalawy)

Governments around the world commonly use social media platforms for public relations, often referred to as digital diplomacy or, in the United States, twenty-first century statecraft. But for official announcements about major changes in policy, there are procedures — usually the head of state or government calls a press conference, or addresses the nation via television or radio. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the White House using its Facebook page as the medium for issuing major announcements about tax increases.

In Egypt, official attitudes toward procedure seem to be a bit more ... ad hoc.

Over the weekend of December 7, the Egyptian government released a bombshell announcement: Without warning and without a press conference or a formal address on either national television or radio, the government published massive tax increases in the country's political journal. The Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram summarized the new taxes, which included a 150 percent increase on water pipe (shisha) tobacco, substantial increases on bank loans, housing, staple foods, building materials and mobile phones. Income tax was also increased on middle earners. Meanwhile, subsidies on butane and electricity had already been reduced.

Egypt has been negotiating with the IMF for a $4.8 billion loan to help ease its acute economic crisis. As Reuters reports, several sources posited that the tax increases were in response to the IMF's predicating the loan on the Morsi government's enacting an austerity plan.

At least 20 percent of Egyptians live in grinding poverty, with a significant percentage somehow managing to survive on less than $2 per day. Their economic position has only deterioriated in the two years since Mubarak was ousted from power. With most barely scraping by, the huge public outcry against the tax increases should have been easy to predict.

The Morsi government, however, seemed surprised by the strength of the public protest. Within a few hours, a new announcement went out — the tax hikes were rescinded. Adding to the Amateur Night impression, the government issued two official announcements at around on the Facebook page of the Freedom and Justice Party, which Morsi leads.

The first announcement made it sound as though the president's party learned about the tax increases from the media:

Press release: the Freedom and Justice party was surprised by the news that were circulated in the media about the decisions taken by the government to raise taxes on some goods and services as well as the tax hikes on income and real estate.

The Freedom and Justice Party confirms its permanent position of refusing any economic policies that increase the burdens of citizens with limited income and therefore the party calls on the head of the government to stop these decisions until they are reviewed by the parliament once it’s formed. Such decisions which affect wide sectors of society cannot be taken in the absence of a parliament and by a transitional government.

We therefore call on the government to stop these decisions until they are evaluated and discussed within the discussion of the state’s general budget and to consider whether there are alternative economic policies with the assurance that the laboring classes will not be affected by such procedures.

A second announcement seemed to come directly from Morsi:

The president who is well connected to the beat of the Egyptian street and realizes the struggle of the average Egyptian citizen in such difficult economic times has followed the fearful reactions to the decisions issued re: tax increase on services and goods which would lead to increasing living expenses for Egyptian citizens. The president does not tolerate adding another burden to the life of the Egyptian citizen unless it was by choice therefore he decided to stop the implementation of those decisions and asked the government to discuss and evaluate them with the specialized experts to determine whether such measures are necessary and/or accepted by the public.

The people’s voice will remain the loudest and the final arbitrator of decisions.*

The Facebook announcement has been shared nearly 2,000 times.

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has been on a bit of a rollercoaster over the past three weeks. In mid-November he was showered with praise by the United Sates government and a wide swathe of international leaders for his "pivotal" role in brokering a ceasefire that ended a 1-week military conflict between Israel and Hamas. His proactive diplomacy won him plaudits at home, too.

But the next day Egyptians woke up to discover that their democratically elected president had just granted himself the powers of a dictator. As the New York Times reported, Morsi "...issued a decree on Thursday granting himself broad powers above any court as the guardian of Egypt’s revolution, and used his new authority to order the retrial of Hosni Mubarak."

Using the Twitter handles @ikhwanweb (English) and @ikhwantawasol (Arabic), the Muslim Brotherhood's social media staffers seemed to be working around the clock to defend and spin the president's decree. The ratification of the constitution was being held back by Mubarak loyalists in the judiciary, they argued. The point of the decree was to give Morsi the powers to shepherd the constitution through the ratification process without interference from opponents with hidden agendas.

On Twitter, Morsi's opponents hashtagged their angry comments with #morsilini, a portmanteau of Morsi and Mussolini, as in the Italian fascist dictator.

Morsi's opponents — a mixed bag of anti-Islamist revolutionaries (not necessarily secularists; there are plenty of practicing Muslims who oppose political Islam, or Islamism), socialists, communists, anarchists and Christians came out in their thousands to protest. Protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis and re-occupied Tahrir Square downtown, in what Time Magazine described as "...the largest sustained public uprising since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak."

The protesters demanded that Morsi annul the decree granting himself dictatorial powers and that he postpone the December 15 referendum on the draft constitution, which opponents say is tainted because it was written by an all-Islamist body that does not have the support of the judiciary or non-Islamists.

The president did backtrack on the decree granting himself the power to ignore the courts, but refused to postpone the referendum on the constitution. It went ahead as scheduled, even as the judiciary, in protest, announced its refusal to oversee the polling stations and opponents said the largely peaceful voting was marred by irregularities.

Commenting on the government's choice of Facebook as the medium for making major policy announcements, Michael W. Hanna, an Egypt analyst with the Century Foundation, said to techPresident, "Well, using this medium certainly demonstrates a lack of seriousness. I don’t know why they are adopting [Facebook] as the primary means of announcing decisions. It's a very, very weird way to do business." He added, "There is an assumption on the part of the government that politicized Egyptians are checking Facebook for news, rather than newspapers. But most people remain, in terms of their personal commitment to politics, distant or passingly political. They are passive. Those who are politicized and active are disproportionately on Facebook."

Mohamed El Dahshan, an Egyptian economist and political analyst who lives in Cairo, where he has been active in the revolution since its first day, said, "The government is targeting people like me." Only half joking, he added, "...and the eastern seaboard [of the United States]."

While Facebook and other social media platforms were important tools for reporting the revolution to the outside world during the revolution, when the Mubarak regime tried to throttle communications and censor the media, Internet penetration amongst Egyptians is not very high. According to research published by Arab Crunch it stood at 23 percent in February 2011. Given the poverty of Egypt's rural areas, it is logical to conclude that most Internet users are concentrated in the urban areas. Egypt's population is 85 million.

But looking for logic in the Egyptian government's actions is a bit of a loser's game these days. The country is in chaos and no-one seems to know who is in charge. Prominent Muslim Brotherhood members who have no governmental position and are not elected officials of any sort are making what sound like official government announcements. The prime minister was not notified of the tax increases before they were published.

"As my father said," commented El Dahshan, "There are too many cooks."

*Translations from the Arabic courtesy of Dalia Ezzat (@daliaezzat_)

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