The Islamist opposition online in Egypt and Jordan
|Friday, January 25,2008 11:01|
|By Pete Ajemian|
January, 2008. An October report from Reporters without Borders indicates that the level of media freedom in both Egypt and Jordan has deteriorated over the past year following the jailing of several journalists and political activists in both countries.[i] This warrants a look at how opposition groups in these two states are using the internet to adapt to increasingly hostile print and television media environments. While Egypt and Jordan have relatively low internet penetration rates, 8.3%[ii] and 14.8%[iii] respectively, both countries are currently undertaking programs to promote and expand access, thus making online media activism increasingly relevant to political developments.[iv]
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been raising its online profile at a time when the group is making limited gains in the official political process. In Jordan, regime policies have not been as hostile as in Egypt, but a series of recent measures limiting media freedom encouraged the Islamist opposition group, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), to launch an internet campaign supporting its candidates in the November 2007 elections. Although both groups share a Muslim Brotherhood ideological background, the use of the internet has varied between these two organizations, and is shaped by the organizational dynamics of these groups and the wider political context in which they function. Accordingly, while both the MB and the IAF have used websites to support short-term political objectives like election campaigns, the use of individualized online platforms such as blogs for media activism has been so far limited to the Egyptian MB. The IAF’s current internet strategy appears to be motivated by success at the polls rather than participating in broader liberal discourses enabled by new media. I suggest that while both countries have experienced setbacks in media freedom, the ways in which their respective Islamist opposition groups have utilized new media have played out differently according to factors internal and external to these groups as political actors. Furthermore, I argue that while new media technologies have provided some newfound benefits to opposition groups, they can bring potential challenges as well.
New media: Empowerment through convergence
To understand how online media enable opposition groups to establish counter-public spheres[v] of media discourse, one should look beyond the net’s increased interconnectivity, speed and its compatibility with networked organizations. Instead, the benefits of media convergence, bringing together print, video and broadcast in cyberspace, best explain how sub-state groups can circumvent their marginalization in mainstream media outlets. This phenomenon has shifted the power to create media content downward to a new range of small producers, while the reach enabled by new media shifts outward, allowing groups and individuals to transmit their media content to a global audience.[vi] Opposition group websites that feature print media, radio broadcasts and video footage are the technical side of media convergence. However, while websites have come to serve as an important resource for the dissemination of print and broadcast media, blogs best demonstrate how media convergence empowers individuals to shape media counter-public spheres.
Blogs intersect and compliment existing transnational media, allowing for dissident groups and their sympathizers to tap into the mainstream.[vii] Blogs also differ from websites in their low cost and user-friendly operability and maintenance. Some indicate that as a form of expression they have the potential to be a significant channel of ‘democratic’ discourse in Muslim contexts since blogging requires little technical knowledge, hosting can be free, and users can easily communicate widely with one other.[viii] At the same time, these individualized media platforms can cut against top-down leadership structures, and damage unity of message.
Despite the relatively low level of internet infrastructure in the Arab world, much of the new energy in Arab politics comes from a relatively small group of activists, and a technology that empowers their efforts could have a disproportionate impact even if it does not reach a mass base.[ix] Thus, the value of blogs as a form of new media is that they allow for individual grass roots political journalism and facilitate the creation of a counter-public sphere of discourse that has the potential to penetrate mainstream media. However, the impact of the integration of the Arab world into cyberspace will not be uniform and must be considered along with the social and political contexts in which actors use this technology towards their political agendas.[x]
The case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
The Muslim Brotherhood’s status in Egypt as an illegal organization has impeded its ability to issue media, while other political organizations recognized as legal political parties have been allowed to do so.[xi] To participate in elections, the Brotherhood skirts state restrictions by fielding independent candidates allied with secular opposition parties.[xii]
Media and open political activism have been at the center of the Brotherhood’s attempts to break into the Egyptian political mainstream. Precedent for such contestation exists in state policies towards print media, whereby ownership of the so-called “national press,” including the largest circulating daily newspapers, is in the hands of the Supreme Press Council and the Shura Council, an entity within Egypt’s upper house in parliament.[xiii] [see also Jeffrey Black’s article in this issue] And although Islamist political views have been catered to in the Labor Party’s publication Al-Shaab, it was suspended in 2003.[xiv] The regime’s historical control over media through such entities as the Supreme Press Council has been enhanced by the renewal of the state emergency law in April of 2006[xv] and antiterrorism laws introduced under Mubarak.[xvi] Members of the Brotherhood were, as recently as March of 2006, arrested for possessing anti-government publications and hiding printers and flyers.[xvii]
After the Egyptian regime closed down the official MB website in September 2004 the movement fought back by decentralizing its web presence to over eighteen separate sites promoting individual candidates.[xviii] In the run up to the 2005 presidential elections, activists began using the internet to organize demonstrations.[xix] The online media were incorporated into an overall campaign strategy that combined websites for each of its candidates with an internet radio station promoting the MB platform and the individual candidate sites.[xx] Part of this online campaign was meant to counter the control of the Egyptian Information Ministry and Television Union over the allocation of television broadcasts for parliamentary candidates; the MB launched an advertisement campaign explaining its election platform and the history of the group in a two hour video on its internet site.[xxi] The editor of the MB’s website stated that this was an effort to link the group’s leaders with the street since the Brotherhood was not allowed to appear on official television or terrestrial programs.[xxii]
In addition to mobilizing support for its electoral campaigns, the MB used websites to criticize and publicize election tampering. The most recent instance of this was during the 2007 Shura Council elections, when the Brotherhood claimed poll rigging and protested the detention of party members.[xxiii] In response to these activities the MB’s official website published articles in both Arabic[xxiv] and English[xxv] denouncing the measures against it. The Brotherhood’s official website also hosted video footage taken by hidden cameras allegedly depicting ballot box tampering at a number of the polling stations.[xxvi] But perhaps the most interesting development in the MB’s usage of internet-based media has been the entrance of the group into the blogosphere. As a convergent platform that enables individuals to utilize multiple media formats and penetrate other spheres of media discourse, the use of blogging by Brotherhood members has ushered in both new opportunities and challenges to the organization by empowering individuals to serve as both the vehicle behind and the face of the MB’s political media.
The Brotherhood enters the blogosphere
In recent years, the Egyptian regime has become more aggressive with security crackdowns on internet political activists, especially targeting the MB.[xxvii] Some argue that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood learned the power of blogging from the Kifaya movement, an alliance of opposition groups that relied heavily on the internet to coordinate demonstrations against the regime.[xxviii] The movement’s blogging began to have a political impact in Egypt in 2004-2005, bringing it to the attention of other opposition groups in Egypt. [xxix] In this sense, regime attempts to suppress activists and journalists have backfired, resulting in increased currency for both individuals and movements like the MB in Egyptian politics.[xxx]
Blogs have also enabled individuals in the Brotherhood to partake in opposition media activism. [xxxi] This is evident in how today’s younger Muslim Brothers are trying to adopt this technology to generate the kinds of solidarity, support and attention enjoyed by bloggers in other sectors of Egyptian society.[xxxii] In addition to individual bloggers, the MB maintains an official website, http://www.ikhwanonline.com/. The site works to raise party awareness with editorials recently featured on its website entitled, “Blogs of the sons of the arrested Brothers… shout out against the tyrants,”[xxxiii] “The slogans of the youth in the world of the internet: Enter Politics through the door of blogs,”[xxxiv] and “The Bloggers send a message of warning… we will speak our opinions out loud.”[xxxv] By the spring of 2007, the number of Brotherhood bloggers had risen from zero to around 150 in less than a year.[xxxvi]
As Brotherhood blogging surged, so did government arrests. Human Rights Watch reported that more than 1,000 members of the Brotherhood were detained between March of 2006 and March of 2007 and 800 remained imprisoned as of June 2007.[xxxvii] Yet the decentralized blogosphere remained online, with the Brotherhood’s main site serving as a central hub. The central site both framed the personal ordeals of individual members and heightened the effects of personal narratives using multimedia.
Abdul Galil al-Sharnoubi, the editor-in-chief of the Brotherhood’s official website, has called this “human element” a successful part of the Brotherhood’s online strategy. In an interview with Al Jazeera.net al-Sharnoubi described his approach as “making communications and contacts with various media, confirming that the most important element in the media equation is the human element, which the Muslim Brotherhood possesses.”[xxxviii] These personal narratives are enhanced by the fact that many of the younger bloggers are sons and daughters of imprisoned Muslim Brothers, thus giving the Brotherhood a human media face set against the backdrop of accounts of suffering under the Mubarak regime.
These compelling personal narratives often succeed in breaking-in to other media formats, as in the case of a blog dedicated to imprisoned MB member Hassan Malek,[xxxix] one of the movement’s leaders arrested in a February 2007 crackdown.[xl] Created by his eldest daughter Khadiga, the blog features videos dedicated to the portrayal of her father’s suffering. One of these segments posted on YouTube entitled, "Return my father,” depicts the pleas of his youngest daughter Aisha for her father"s release from prison.[xli] But perhaps the most significant figure in the Brotherhood"s blog culture has been Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, also a Brotherhood member detained early in 2007 for belonging to an illegal organization and defaming the Egyptian government.[xlii] Mahmoud originally saw his blog "Ana Ikhwan," which can be translated as "I am the Brotherhood," as a way to publish his experience of being imprisoned as a member of the MB.[xliii] While his blog presents a powerful Brotherhood-centered narrative of political events such as the military tribunals of Muslim Brothers and stories of members who have been targeted on his English language site, the level of visibility Mahmoud has achieved also embodies a challenge to the Brotherhood that blogging potentially poses: reformist minded individuals can now openly challenge the policies of the conservative organizational leadership.[xliv]
Challenges to organizational dynamics
The MB as a political entity has developed from a highly-secretive, hierarchical, antidemocratic organization led by anointed leaders into a modern, multi-vocal political association driven by educated, knowledgeable professionals.[xlv] The ability of blogs to empower the voices of more moderate, tech-savvy members may further threaten the authority of more conservative leaders. In his blog, Abdel Monem Mahmoud has leveled a series of critiques of the conservative aspects of the recently published draft of the Brotherhood’s program as a political party.[xlvi] These entries sparked a variety of responses, to which Mahmoud responded by arguing for a moderate and open agenda for the Brotherhood.[xlvii] This public display of internal disputes has been met with criticism from within the ranks of the Brotherhood.[xlviii] Indicative of how blogging has enabled moderate Muslim Brothers like Abdel Monem Mahmoud to publicly critique policies set forth by the group’s more conservative leadership, some suggest that this debate has even led to the withdrawal of the recently issued draft of the Brotherhood’s program.[xlix] The airing of this internal debate in cyberspace may portend coming challenges to organizational unity.