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How Twitter Explains Egypt's Bloody Politics

As Egypt's political crisis has swelled in recent days, key actors ranging from ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsy to the opposition Tamarod movement have taken to Twitter to stake out their positions in the conflict. Now, a team of researchers is mining hashtags on the microblogging service to monitor those very tensions.

Starting with a set of Egyptian Twitter users who self-identified as either secularists or Islamists, the researchers -- Ingmar Weber and Kiran Garimella of the Qatar Foundation's Computing Research Institute (QCRI) and Alaa Batayneh of Al Jazeera -- tracked the repetition of hashtags and how closely they were associated with one group or another. For example, Weber told Foreign Policy by Skype from Doha, everyone uses the hashtag #FF, or "follow Friday," which gives it a neutral polarity rating on their Political Polarization Index. #Coup, on the other hand, has been favored by jilted Islamists over the past week, while liberals prefer #revolution. Here are some other examples of polarized hashtags:

 

The researchers then plotted polarization over time, crunching the data for 17 million Egyptian tweets (the higher the number on the y-axis, the more polarized Egyptian Twitter users are).

 

The chart above shows the level of political polarization among Egyptian Twitter users from March 2012 through July 3, 2013. That first peak, in April, coincides with violent protests over military rule, the second with Egypt's constitutional crisis in November. Starting about a month ago, you can see a crescendo of polarization leading up to the Tamarod protests on June 30.

The big question looming over the study is whether the data could have foreshadowed the contentious and, at times, deadly protests that erupted across Egypt over the past week and a half. As Patrick Meier, the director of social innovation at QCRI, wrote on his blog, iRevolution, "this index appears to provide early warning signals for increasing tension." Weber, who worked on similar projects tracking online trends during the 2012 presidential campaign in the United States, said he'd like to see the model applied to other countries experiencing political upheaval.

Finding the right formula for turning social media into a crystal ball is a growing field of study (in March, for instance, Businessweek reported on research underway at Sandia National Labs to cull predictive data from the Internet). And while Weber is quick to point out that QCRI's Political Polarization Index doesn't predict events, it can demonstrate when tensions are running high -- and when things are most likely to escalate.

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

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Top Brotherhood Leaders Slapped With Arrest Warrants

CAIRO — On Wednesday, Egypt's prosecutor's office issued arrest warrants for Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide Mohammed Badie and nine other top officials in the movement. The officials are accused of inciting violence at the Republican Guard headquarters on Monday, when at least 51 people were killed, the vast majority of them supporters of former President Mohamed Morsy.

"It's political," said Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad. "The state and all its institutions are complicit in coming out with this decision. The judiciary is complicit in obeying orders [from political powers]."

The arrest warrants are just the latest sign that a rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood is further away than ever before. As Egypt's government moves quickly to put key figures in place, it seemed to be sending the message that the state would hold the Brotherhood responsible for any violence in this transitional period.

The new government is still in the process of being formed. A new prosecutor general, Hesham Barakat, was appointed shortly before the arrest warrants were issued. And on Tuesday, President Adly Mansour tapped Hazem el-Beblawi, an economist who previously served as finance minister, as prime minister. Beblawi has argued that the government must move quickly to cut Egypt's bloated subsidy programs for energy and food -- a position that, if he follows through on it, could galvanize protests against the new government.

Badie made a surprise appearance at the pro-Morsy sit-in outside the Rabaa al-Adaweya mosque on Friday, after widespread news reports that he had been arrested. "We will sacrifice ourselves, our souls and our blood, for President Morsy," he said in a fiery speech to the assembled crowd.

Such statements aside, it's not clear if the Brotherhood leaders could have avoided these arrest warrants had the bloodshed at the Republican Guard headquarters not occurred. Prosecutors were already investigating the movement's top officials for inciting violence at their Cairo headquarters, when Brotherhood members shot at protesters trying to storm the building. Egyptian security forces are also looking into top Brotherhood officials' involvement in a 2011 prison break, and had slapped a travel ban on them while the investigation is underway.

The arrest warrants could also increase the pressure on the Brotherhood protest at Rabaa al-Adaweya. Top Brotherhood officials go in and out of the sit-in frequently, and should they stay there to evade arrest, it could exacerbate an already tense situation. Haddad said that his group had heard rumors of efforts to break up the sit-in, but that the Brotherhood had no choice but to wait and see what the security forces would do.

"We're facing the consequences of our choices [to oppose the new government]," he said. "And they will have to face the consequences of their choices too, in subverting the revolution in this way."

MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images