They Really Do Hate Us … at Least on Twitter

From AhramOnline, on research analyzing Twitter:

In the case of Egypt, the researchers analyzed more than 2.2 million Arabic tweets that mentioned the United States and found just three percent could be termed pro-American, with 23 percent neutral and the majority critical of the United States.

Ok, so they hate our foreign policy – no big news there. But the following is more disturbing:

By contrast, about 30 percent of those tweeting in Arabic about Hurricane Sandy expressed concern about Americans or defended Americans.

Only 30 percent? Ugh. I hope there is some confusion in reporting or answering, between ‘concern’ and ‘defended’. But this doesn’t reflect well, I’m afraid.

So how to interpret the general conclusion:

“Reactions to cases where the US is influencing Middle Eastern affairs are 95 percent to 99 percent negative,” Keohane said.

Is our foreign policy just really bad? Or are we inept at PR, at least in comparison to local outfits? The research showed these numbers hold no matter what side of the domestic divide these tweets support.

I generally think that ‘winning hearts and minds’ is an overblown concept. But in as much as it is a policy goal, the US is failing miserably … at least on Twitter.


John Stott and the Power of a Tweet

John Stott
John Stott

From a recent blog post by the charity Coptic Orphans:

John Stott was an Anglican writer and student of the Scriptures.

Christianity Today reprinted a sermon he gave on “Four Ways Christians can influence the world.”

Then, someone asked on Twitter, and @Copticorphans retweeted: “How does this apply to Copts in Egypt?” How can Copts move “beyond mere survival” to more truly become salt and light in society around them?

The blog then goes on to provide an excerpt of the sermon, which can be found here and is worth reading no matter what country you reside in.

The tweet, however, was mine.

In my best effort of humblebrag, I currently have 361 followers on Twitter. Please click here if you would like to increase the number, and here to read my reflection upon joining Twitter for the first time, in April 2011.

I am still slow to own a smart phone, though they are readily available in Egypt. Perhaps soon; after all, we’ll all have them in a few years. But because of this my tweeting is usually reserved for offering comments as I read articles on the internet, primarily of Egyptian news. I imagine most of these disappear into cyberspace; sometimes someone’s retweet makes me smile.

But that tweet, about John Stott, found an audience. It was then turned into a blog post on one of the most popular Coptic charity organizations. From there, who knows? It is bread upon the water.

One of my hopes for the Copts is that they might find the courage and faith to emerge from an often insular mentality, serving and blessing their society. Perhaps the cards are stacked against them as a minority, but salt is always a minority in the food it preserves.

But if they realize this, they can also be light, of which minority/majority makes no difference at all. Light, once lit, dispels darkness. It is its very nature.

One small tweet, but it found the administrator of a blog. From there it found readers of a blog. And from there perhaps it stimulated conversations among Copts around the world.

All humblebrag, perhaps, or a narcissistic search for relevancy. But perhaps it is also a reminder that within the scope of influence we have, we should speak. Ideas have power, but they must be heard.

Or tweeted. The world is changing, and surely tweeting will never be a substitute for ordinary human communication. But as a means among many, why not?



Experiments with Twitter

Twitter logo initial

Over the past few weeks I have been playing around with Twitter, and I can’t say I have it figured out yet, or that I spend too much time trying. I have discovered a somewhat useful practice, though, that entertains me if no one else. Every day I read the news and take notes about subjects and personalities I am following, and when thoughts are coherent enough I enjoy turning this into a blog post. Un-coherent thoughts, though, as well as first impressions, work well with Twitter. These micro-musings can be found on the right hand column of this blog, as well as with anyone who might deign to ‘follow’ me. It seems like a narcissistic world, but that can be said of blogging as well, I suppose. The legitimate hope is that those interested in the topics I read might be able to read along with me if I highlight an article.

If you do, please enjoy. And if you like, here is our handle: jnjcasper. Ironically, and with a degree of coy self-satisfaction, I can’t even offer instructions on what to do with that to follow me, but those of you interested probably already know.

Update: Well, that wasn’t too hard to figure out. To the right is a simple button to press. I guess I have to lose the coyness now. Oh well.


Egyptian Protests, Day Two

It has been a very surreal two days for us here in Egypt. We live in Maadi, and though there was one early account of a protest, the area has been quiet. Yesterday and today I have been monitoring the Twitter feeds, even after the service went down, allegedly at government behest, though they officially deny this. For those of you who are not Twitter-savvy, like myself, you can follow second-by-second coverage if you go to Google, type #Jan25 into search, and then watch people’s ‘tweets’ scroll down your screen.

Not everything here can be verified, of course, but it puts the urgency and immediacy of the moment right before your eyes. Yet, all around is calm and quiet. Certain websites have live feeds of news reports, carrying the stories that journalists and ordinary citizens report. Whereas yesterday, on Police Day, the protests were large-scale and generally tolerated until late in the evening, today’s reports tell of smaller numbers but greater resistance on the part of security forces.

My take, however ignorant: On Police Day I posted my expectations about the event, written the day before. I spoke about how Egypt was not like Tunisia, because while in Tunis the protests were driven by discontent with economic conditions led by the poor, and only later on joined by the middle class, in Egypt these protests seem to me to be upper and middle class driven. This can be seen by the great role Twitter and Facebook have played in rallying the cry for protest. But I also thought that the impact would fall short of Tunisia for this very reason. Frustrations of the middle class here run deep, but can they gain the numbers and sustain the pressure needed for wholesale change? I wondered, doubting.

As the protests swelled yesterday I, like everyone, including the government apparently, was surprised by the turnout. I was impressed by the generally peaceful nature of demonstrations – opposed to certain signs in Tunisia – as well as the restraint shown by the security forces. By the evening as nightfall came, greater efforts were made to displace the protestors, who seemed determined to stay the night in Cairo’s central square. Tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets were employed. At the same time, it could well be interpreted as reasonable efforts to preserve public order. Not that the protestors threatened violence, but that the government was keen to stop the event as carefully as possible, yet stop it all the same.

Today began very quietly. Early efforts to protest fizzled against opposition, but on a day to return to work, the numbers did not seem grand. Whereas the day before I wondered if my posted analysis would be rendered foolish very quickly, by the afternoon it seemed the efforts at demonstration represented an attempt to force the issue, to keep alive a fading spirit.

Yesterday afternoon Julie and I took the girls out to go shopping and for a bit of a walk. We live in a nice neighborhood in Maadi, which is certainly an upper class neighborhood by all standards. But we live not far from where the area blends into a lower class section, which is where Julie often shops at lower prices than if she walks in the opposite direction. As thousands of people were rallying downtown, we enjoyed a normal stroll in the busy streets, the same scenario played out day after day. There were no rumblings of protest, no efforts to stir trouble. It confirmed my thoughts further that this social media revolution might largely be akin to a spoiled teenager railing against a dysfunctional family. The issues are surely serious, but the stakes are not so large.

Further confirmation came with a phone call to the Upper Egyptian city of Maghagha, where we had visited for a few days. We enjoyed time again with our priest-family friends there, and will write about this soon. But in this sleepy, poorer town three hours south of Cairo, there were no demonstrations whatsoever. Most protests have been in Cairo and Alexandria; certainly there are many desperately poor people here, but it is also home to the middle class. Protests elsewhere have been in a Mediterranean costal city known as a labor stronghold, and in the Sinai where there are longstanding issues with the Bedouin. Much of Upper Egypt was quiet, which was not the case during recent legislative elections, when protest demonstrations against alleged electoral corruption were widespread.

Finally, more confirmation came in a visit to the area of Kozzika, which is a poorer neighborhood to the south of Maadi where I go twice weekly for my class in a Coptic Orthodox institute. Again, no signs of anger, trouble, or concern with the world. A local coffee shop had al-Jazeera broadcasting live coverage of an emerging protest in downtown Cairo, and no one paid any attention, as domino tiles slammed down against the table.

But after a few hours away from the computer and Twitter addictions, I came home to survey the news. Protests, it seems, are gaining steam as the night goes on. Security repression seems rather severe, but the result perhaps is to spur on more people to join in. As you follow the news you can get wrapped up in it – here is an especially chilling audio link from a foreign British journalist who was rounded up in the back of a police truck with dozens of protestors. It makes it seems as if the world is on fire.

Perhaps it is – there. Not here. In all I am about 12 kilometers away from what is happening. It might as well be worlds apart. Those there have such passion and fury from their cause in the moment; those here are sleeping peacefully, including my three young daughters. Do I wish to be there? Not really, exciting as it would be. Am I content here? Not quite. Egypt could be changing, or it could be a blip on the screen. Either way, I am disconnected, and the feeling of disconnection is fueled by the constant surveying of others’ passion and fury. Is it true? Is it widespread? Is it good?

Still, it is smaller than yesterday. Will tomorrow be smaller still? It is said that Egyptians are not revolutionary by character. Until about 60 years ago, the nation had been ruled by foreigners since the days of Alexander the Great. They move along in life, deal with economic realities, and do not rock the boat. Yesterday and today, they are trying to. Some, that is. Thousands, actually. Will it make a difference against a resolute government? A government backed by American support?

But, on the other hand, even thousands are but a drop in the bucket. In their non-participation, do the majority of Egyptians signal content relative enough to prove this is not an internal rumbling for democracy, but rather the pining of a frustrated middle class earning to imitate Tunisia and, however legitimately, increase its sphere of freedoms? The government does not do a great job of eradicating poverty, but it heavily subsidizes basic goods. Are the majority of the poor content enough along their historical pattern, unconcerned by exclusion from political life? Will the protests eventually fizzle as the middle class aspirations are beaten down?

By and large, these have been secular protests, and notably, Egypt is a religious society. I would like to explore this question further tomorrow, if possible, but the call is circulating on Twitter that protestors are regrouping, and calling for nationwide participation following Friday prayers. Will Egyptians emerge from the mosque and take to the streets? This is looking like the next big question, unless tomorrow has more surprises. But will the population rally around a non-religious cause? It remains to be seen.

So what is my take, after all of this? It is best to hold judgment. I would encourage all to pray. The president needs wisdom, as do advisors, police chiefs, and protestors. There are deaths and injuries, and these cannot please God. Yet there are aspirations and hopes, and perhaps these do. May he sift the chaff from the wheat and bring about a society pleasing to all. Far less importantly, may he also give armchair observers sitting in Maadi the ability to be as constructive as possible.


Soccer, Twitter, and Electricity

With one day to go regarding the USA World Cup match tomorrow afternoon, I thought I would give a short summary of our experience with the last game, a last minute 1-0 triumph over Algeria.

I wish there was a lot to say. There could have been on two fronts.

On the first we are at fault. Having attended and reported on the England-Algeria match from a local coffee shop, I would have been curious to see who local Egyptians rooted for in the US-Algeria game. Would they finally find solidarity with their North African cousins, so that soccer animosity be overcome in antipathy against the United States?

I cannot say. A 5:00pm local start time suggested we end the day a little early at work, and my English colleague and I organized an office viewing at a local trendy restaurant, with few Egyptians present. It was a great place to watch the game – big screen TV and surround sound – but little cultural flavor.

On the second front the power grid is to blame. Our group from work, plus Julie and the girls and one other wife, numbered about ten, with seven Americans, but all pulling for the Yanks. For those who watched, you know the game was tense, and all were riveted to the screen.

(A drama reducing pause and clarification is needed, though. Shortly after intermission Julie and the girls went down to play on the playground, and were joined later by the other wife. So, not all were riveted. Even so, this was a good sign, for the US comeback against Slovenia commenced once my family similarly descended for the slides and swings.)

With about twenty minutes to play, the power went out. This is a frequent summer occurrence in Maadi. There is a disproportionately higher middle to upper class population, both foreigner and Egyptian, and the air conditioner use will overload the power grid, which will blackout a neighborhood or apartment building from anywhere to five minutes to an hour or longer.

This was not to be of the five minute variety.

Fortunately, Egypt is better equipped in another variety of technology. One colleague had a Blackberry and was able to pull in from the wide 3G network updates on his Twitter account. As the clock ticked, we stared at the black screen, waiting for resumption, but also getting 140 character status reports on the ever increasing missed American chances. Huddled mostly silent around a cell phone, we also lamented the loss of the air conditioning, trapped inside in 100 degree heat.

As all was lost, suddenly a colleague received a phone call from a friend informing of the winning goal. As we wondered in disbelief if it was a prank, seconds later Twitter confirmed the victory. Our cheer roared, informing the rest of the clientele about the result, and all went home happy, if bittersweet at missing the classic moment. Still, it is a story to be remembered forever.

Tomorrow I will bypass the restaurant in favor of a downtown café. With the US game not starting until 9:30pm local time, it will not be a family affair. Instead, I will join friends in the heart of Cairo, taking in my first game there, hoping also to find the pulse of the city for the World Cup in general. US-Ghana is not a powerhouse matchup, but will it take the imaginations of local Cairenes nonetheless? If there is a story to tell, be sure I will relate it. I just hope that the ending is happy.