The State Department on Thursday backed off its decision to honor a young woman for her bravery in the Egyptian uprising after it emerged that she’d quoted Adolf Hitler on Jews, celebrated a suicide bombing and posted anti-American commentary on her Twitter account.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that officials would defer the presentation of a Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award to Samira Ibrahim, 26, who faced death threats after taking on Egypt’s powerful generals in court over the forced “virginity tests” of 17 women protesters who were detained in March 2011.
Ibrahim was to have joined nine other honorees Friday for a ceremony presided over by Secretary of State John Kerry and first lady Michelle Obama. She already had been flown to the United States at government expense for the event.
Nuland said the department became aware of Ibrahim’s dubious comments “very late in the process” and defended the reasons Ibrahim was originally included as a recipient.
“As you may recall, she was detained, she was subject to real police violence. Not only did she speak out about that, but she also became a real leader in her country in trying to address gender-based violence and other human rights abuses,” Nuland said. “So it was on that basis that she was initially selected, but obviously, these comments need to be looked into and we need some time.”
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum alerted the State Department to Ibrahim’s tweets on Tuesday, according to a report on the website of The Atlantic by Jeffrey Goldberg. The focus is on a handful of more than 18,000 postings on Ibrahim’s account.
Among the tweets was one posted this past Sept. 11 that was soon deleted: “Today is the anniversary of 9/11. May every year come with America burning.”
On Aug. 4, she wrote that the Saudi royal family was “dirtier than the Jews,” and then a couple of weeks later quoted Hitler: “I have discovered with the passage of days, that no act contrary to morality, no crime against society, takes place except with the Jews having a hand in it.”
On July 18, Ibrahim referenced a suicide bombing in Bulgaria that killed five Israeli tourists and a local bus driver, calling it “a very sweet day with a lot of very sweet news.”
Nuland said that Ibrahim had denied making the comments, explaining that her account had been hacked, but that the State Department was still looking into the allegations and wouldn’t be including Ibrahim at the event. Instead, she’ll be returned to Egypt.
“My account has been stolen more than once and any tweet on racism and hatred is not me,” Ibrahim tweeted once the controversy became public.
The case became a topic of debate among Egyptians on Twitter and other social-networking sites because it dredges up the complicated relationship between the protest movement that brought down President Hosni Mubarak and the U.S. government, which propped him up for decades with military and other assistance. And it also revives debate over how to protest Israeli policies toward Palestinians without using anti-Semitic rhetoric.
Some Egyptians sprang to her defense, noting her extreme bravery in challenging the once untouchable military. Many others, however, argued that her offensive comments reflect poorly on the young Egyptians who were at the vanguard of what began as a revolt demanding justice and equality.
“The Samira Ibrahim story isn’t that complicated: her actions against (the military council) were super brave and she’s a bigot with objectionable views,” tweeted Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation research institute in New York.
Others questioned how the State Department could’ve made such an embarrassing gaffe, when regular followers of Ibrahim’s Twitter account say her occasional flashes of militancy had long raised eyebrows among her Egyptian followers.
Nancy Messieh, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said in a phone interview that she remembered seeing Ibrahim’s tweet about the Sept. 11 attacks and was “taken aback,” especially because she’d admired Ibrahim for her courageous stance against the generals. She said other Egyptians on Twitter had openly criticized Ibrahim at the time.
When Messieh later heard about the State Department award, she said, the most surprising part to her was that Ibrahim had accepted it, given the activist’s strident views on U.S. policies.
“Maybe the Americans would prefer to associate these views with the more Islamist side – the Salafis – but anyone who’s familiar with the young revolutionary socialist activists knows that they have these views, too,” Messieh said. “If the U.S. isn’t familiar with that, it’s definitely naivete.”
Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, said the Women of Courage honorees are nominated by local embassies and reviewed in Washington. She didn’t have an answer for how Ibrahim’s apparent militant streak was missed in the vetting process.
“She has tens of thousands of tweets. So these represent a small portion of those, so obviously, we’re doing forensics internally on how we didn’t catch it the first time,” Nuland said.