Bloggers bucking the Brotherhood in Egypt
Abdel Moneim Mahmoud once organized student elections, collected donations and educated chicken breeders about the dangers of bird flu as an operative for the Muslim Brotherhood. That all ended after he criticized Egypt”s controversial Islamic political group on his blog, Ana-Ikhwan (I Am Brotherhood).
Mahmoud, 28, condemned its opposition to women and Christians holding high office in Egypt, including the presidency. He also questioned its slogan, “Islam is the answer” – a rallying cry of associated groups and imitators across the Islamic world – for implying that religious scripture should be the primary criterion for political action.
Brotherhood officials told Mahmoud to stop blogging or drop out of the organization. While he suspended active participation, he still considers himself a member. He is also unrepentant.
“The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood used to listen and obey,” he says. “Some leaders don”t like it, but we don”t keep quiet.”
Mahmoud is part of a new generation of Islamic-oriented bloggers in the Middle East whose willingness to air internal matters online has created as much of a stir as their opinions, says Diaa Rashwan, an analyst here at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“What”s new is this launching pad used by young people: the blog,” he says. “They are loyal to the Brotherhood, but believe in open debate.”
Until recently, political blogging in Egypt was largely the domain of secular democracy activists who reported on strikes and torture and promoted protests against the 26-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. Brotherhood bloggers took their cue from those campaigners, says Mahmoud, a reporter for the independent, non-Islamic newspaper Al Dustour.
Two years ago, some Brothers, mainly in their 20s, began detailing the arrests and torture by the police of their own members. Some also turned to criticizing the Brotherhood itself. They released details of a draft political platform now being discussed internally that includes the ban on women and Christians leading a Muslim-majority country.
“We don”t think these activities are harmful,” says Magdi Saad, 30, marketing manager for a real-estate company who runs the blog Yalla Mesh Mohem (It Doesn”t Matter). “We think we put a human face on the Brotherhood. The leaders were shocked.”
Discipline has long been the watchword for the 80-year-old group. Public airing of internal debates was considered off limits, and membership lists and training information are veiled from public view, partly because Brothers have been perpetually subject to imprisonment.
During part of its history, members preached violent struggle against the government. In 1974, under the influence of what was then its younger generation, it disowned bloodshed, except in the case of armed action against the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq and by Palestinian groups including Hamas against Israel.
The Brotherhood is a model for Hamas and other Islamic political organizations such as the Islamic Action Front in Jordan. Unlike Hamas, it is not on the list of terrorist organizations compiled by the U.S. State Department.
Although Egypt”s government legally bars the Brotherhood from politics, it is the country”s largest opposition force. The group, which estimates its membership at more than one million, won 88 of 454 parliamentary seats in Egypt”s 2005 elections by running candidates as independents.
Mahmoud and Saad have been jailed on occasion for their involvement in the Brotherhood, but they seem unafraid that their public exposure on the Web puts them in further danger. During interviews in public places, they spoke without looking over their shoulders. Such conversations were considered risky, even in private, a few years ago.
“The government knows who we are anyway,” Mahmoud says.
Mustafa al-Naggar, 29, a dentist, says: “The government is happy to characterize us as a secretive organization; we don”t want to play that game.” In his Waves in a Sea of Change blog, he wrote, “It is not shameful to revise our ideas or change our positions.” He also has suggested that members as young as 30 be considered in selecting Brotherhood leaders, instead of 40, which is now the case.
The Brotherhood acknowledges that blogging has created a division of opinion in the organization. Abdel Moneim Aly el-Barbary, a physician and high official, monitors the bloggers and estimates their number at about 150. He says he belongs to the faction that supports them; still, he wants them to avoid attacking personalities, be polite and keep their critiques positive.
It is better for members to air disagreements than let them fester in private, says Barbary, 55, who adds that restrictions should apply only to sensitive organizational issues such as finances. He also says blogging permits Brotherhood officials to see what the rank-and-file is thinking, since the leaders are frequently jailed and meetings of more than five people generally require permission under Egyptian law. “We have to adapt to modern times,” he says.
Ali Abdul-Fattah, 50, another Brotherhood official, says it is common knowledge that members disagree on lots of subjects. Still, he opposes the trend.
“The bloggers have to be guided,” he says. “The Brotherhood is immune from a split, but we don”t want them to portray disunity.”
Notwithstanding the youthful critiques, he says the Brotherhood”s guidance committee, effectively its central board of elders, is firmly in charge. Asked whether the measure that prohibits women and Christians from the Egyptian presidency might be deleted from the final political platform, Abdul-Fattah says no.
“That won”t change,” he says. “Some things are fundamental.”