-Taken from the Arab Press Network-Cairo - November 2008
The blogosphere has long played a key role in transforming Egypt's political landscape, with new media formats being exploited by those seeking to challenge the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Now though, some of Mubarak's adversaries are discovering that internet activism can be a double-edged sword, as a new generation of bloggers have begun critiquing the opposition movements themselves. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood (or 'Ikhwan'), Egypt's largest opposition group, is currently facing a powerful internal challenge from a young cadre of dissenting members who are finding their voice on the web.
The first wave of Muslim Brotherhood bloggers emerged in 2006, taking their cue from the secular civil society activists who, locked out of mainstream political discourse, had turned to the web - using blogs, Facebook and tools like Twitter not just to publish their grievances with government but also to carve out a new political space where like-minded people could debate, plan and co-ordinate activities. Early Ikhwan figures in cyberspace used the medium to publicise the repressive tactics used by police against their organisation. As a means of highlighting the human rights abuses suffered by group members at the hands of the state, the bloggers initially served a useful purpose for the Brotherhood leadership.
Yet although they started merely as another format through which to spread news about the Ikhwan, the Brotherhood bloggers soon grew into something far more dynamic as they began broadcasting their opinions regarding the internal state of their movement. According to Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on Political Islam at the Al-Ahram Foundation, the bloggers "have gone beyond their role as a media tool" for the group, emerging instead as "rebels, freed from ideological and organizational constraints." Chief amongst the bloggers' complaints have been criticism of the Ikhwan's 'old guard' for resisting the emergence of new blood in the upper echelons of the party's hierarchy, anger at the stance taken by the leadership over two attempted general strikes earlier this year, and an all-out critique of the organisation's forthcoming political program, the details of which are still shrouded in secrecy (although some bloggers claim it will not remove a prohibition on women or Copts becoming President of the nation, which has helped fuel their frustration at the leadership).
For an organisation so ruthlessly committed to internal discipline - founder Hassan El-Banna famously declared "We cooperate in what we have agreed on and excuse each other for what we have disagreed on" - the airing of dirty laundry in public is a jarring development. Interestingly, despite the bloggers generally identifying strongly with the liberal wing of the organisation's internal ideological divisions, reformist leaders within the party have been slow to offer them much support, fearing too much internal dialogue will threaten the cohesion of the movement. Some bloggers have faced naked hostility from the party elite (such as Abdel-Moneim Mahmoud, who claims he was ordered to leave the Ikhwan after questioning the group's slogan 'Islam is the Solution' on his blog, 'ana ikhwan'); others have simply been ignored. Mahmoud Ezzat, the conservative secretary-general of the Brotherhood, said younger members shouldn't be "scared to voice their beliefs" but warned, "There should be moral regulations to blogging, otherwise, we won't be able to benefit from this new technology."
Yet as Al-Anani points out, this policy of 'constructive disregard' for the bloggers on the part of the party's leaders has failed. The Brotherhood is attempting to sell itself to the Egyptian people partly as a tolerant antidote to the authoritarianism of Mubarak's regime; it cannot now crack down on its own members without appearing unwilling or incapable of accommodating conflicting opinions. The only alternative is to listen to the bloggers and take their opinions seriously, and that means being ready to make political concessions to the web warriors and allow them to help shape the party's programme. And that could have a significant impact on the trajectory of Egyptian politics, as the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to position itself as the main alternative to Mubarak in a time of unprecedented political volatility.