My recent article for Middle East Report captured a moment in which young members of the Muslim Brotherhood turned to blogging as a way to challenge the organization's status quo - openly discussing its political platform and tactical political decisions, and putting a human face on an often secretive organization. This "Brotherhood bloggers" phenomenon was controversial, sparking sharp criticism from more traditionalist Brotherhood leaders and inspiring a number of articles in the Egyptian press about impending splits and factionalization of the organization. The controversies were rising to something of a fever pitch, both within and outside the organization, no doubt fueled in part by the increasing attention being paid to it by the Egyptian and Western media. "Young Brothers in Cyperspace" concluded with this:
The bloggers of the Muslim Brothers represent a growing intellectual and political force within the movement that could, over time, help tip it in a reformist direction. But they face considerable challenges: a leadership wary of change, a regime increasingly prone to arresting troublesome Internet activists. and a salafi counter-trend that could well take the Muslim Brothers in another direction entirely. How much impact the blogging Brothers can really have remains to be seen, but at the least they represent a new dynamic in the world of Islamism and Arab politics, and offer a striking new window upon the internal life of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Last week, sadly, that window appeared to be closing. In a controversial article published on al-Jazeera Talk (and, notably, not on his own blog or on an official MB website), Abd al-Monem Mahmoud ("Ana Ikhwan"), one of the leaders of the Brotherhood blogging movement, declared a mournful end to the Brotherhood blogging opening. The great mistake of the MB bloggers, Mahmoud concluded, was that they became identified with a specific ideological and political trend - which made it too easy for them to be portrayed by internal and external critics as a "faction." Blogging was supposed to be a personal thing, not a political trend, and its growth into a movement doomed the experiment. Leaders were particularly concerned about the trend since it came a time when the Brotherhood faced a harsh regime crackdown; the airing of internal disagreements helped the organization's enemies and weakened its public image. A number of senior leaders rebuked the blogging Brothers, both publicly and privately, urging them to come to their elders to discuss their concerns rather than just posting them online for all to see. Finally, argues Mahmoud, the recklessness of a few of the youth (especially the "
Islam IkhwanOffline" episode, where some young bloggers posted a parody site of the official Brotherhood website in protest over its editorial decisions) triggered a harsh backlash throughout the senior ranks. The organization's leaders, he hints, decided that the time had come for discipline to replace openness - while the greatest pressure, I hear, actually came from the more radical and salafi youth who vehemently opposed the relatively liberal trend embodied in the blogging experiment.
Mahmoud concludes that it will not be easy for the Brotherhood youth to continue using blogs to push the movement to greater openness under these conditions. That would be a shame. I, and many of the youth themselves, had seen the blogging phenomenon as a healthy trend which could over time reshape the internal politics of the organization and strengthen the reformist trend. The disciplining of these youth will likely strengthen the hand of critics of the organization, and remove one of the hopeful signs about where it's going. (Recall that in my Foreign Policy memo to the Brotherhood, and in my meetings in Cairo, I had encouraged Akef and other Brotherhood leaders to nurture and tolerate the bloggers as a signal of the movement's ability to handle internal debate and criticism. Oh well.)
Despite Mahmoud's current pessimism, I still think that this is possible down the road - if these creative and energetic youth activists can find ways to reassure their elders that their blogging helps the organization in the long term more than it hurts it in the short term. I expect that the "campaign" style blogs will continue (the ones working on behalf of imprisoned Brotherhood leaders, for instance), but that for now the ones discussing internal Brotherhood affairs will go dark. For now, the Brotherhood blogging experiment which seemed so hopeful just months ago seems to have hit a much rougher patch. But is that forever, or just for now? It's hard to imagine the bloggers just letting it go over the long term, given their technophilia and their political energy and the taste of public engagement which they've now had. I'm somewhat reassured by the fascinating cross-blog dialogue over the role of women in the Muslim Brotherhood which continues in spite of the current troubles.