- By Lauren E. Bohn <p> Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn. </p>
Miriam can’t stop talking. And when she does, it’s mostly to look down at a torrent of emails, SMSs, and tweets flooding her smartphone. It’s been a heady nine months for the soft-spoken but sharp-witted 24-year-old Egyptian student turned activist. She’s juggling the ordinary demands of a heavy course-load at Egypt’s top university with a slew of extracurriculars (she’s embarrassed to admit she’s an avid squash player), but also working through the existential hangover of heavily participating in a leaderless revolution that’s now causing more of a headache than a thrill. While polishing some academic work on the role of social media in Egypt’s uprising, she’s been ferociously tweeting on the country’s virtual front-lines, fielding 140-character blows left and right. And she’s doing it for the Muslim Brotherhood.
"Miriam" (she prefers to use a pseudonym, for "security reasons") is one of the admins of @Ikhwanweb, the official English-language Twitter page for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most prominent Islamist organizations in the world. Ikhwanweb, the Muslim Brotherhood’s official English website, started the twitter account @Ikhwanweb back in 2009. For years, the account was a robotic-curated Twitter feed which did little more than link to the website’s posts. But Miriam has recently helped transform the account into a virtual coliseum for some of Egypt’s most heated debates.
For the last few weeks, @Ikhwanweb has been fastidiously engaging journalists ("You got the schedule for our daily rallies, right?"), critics ("We have a lot more important things to focus on and an election to win," in response to a flurry of questions regarding their funding) and curious lay-tweeps alike ("Check chapter 4 of our party platform for our position, the economy section at this link"). Their goal? "To spread the truth," they say, and engage with an English-speaking audience and liberals who wouldn’t otherwise interact with them. But their critics accuse them instead of presenting a falsely forthcoming English-language front that masks their true political intentions.
"We’re tweeting to humanize the Brotherhood and correct misconceptions," Miriam says. "We’re not this big, scary terrorist organization." The social media enthusiast grew up with the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Her parents are something of Brotherhood stalwarts — her mother, a journalism professor, is running for parliament in an affluent Cairo suburb. But she’s also very much a digital native, who came of age alongside the activist generation made famous by January’s uprising. "There are so many people in the Brotherhood like me, who are young, educated, speak many languages, travel," she explains. "I’m not an anomaly, but everyone has the wrong idea about us."
Miriam’s partner-in-tweeting Hazem Malky, 36 — a self-described "certified Twitter addict" who previously tweeted prolifically at @hazemmalky publicly, but recently locked his account to avoid "hate-tweets" — is an editor at Ikhwanweb and medical doctor by training. Currently based in New York, he also prefers to use a pseudonym, citing worries over "Zionist elements" and the United States government. He talks a mile a minute with a vaguely Brooklyn drawl, adroitly weaving arguments together with an easy mix of American vernacular and Classic Arabic. He says he tweets from his iPhone on the road, at the dinner table, even in his sleep. "Actually," he concedes, "it’s sort of pathetic."
In part, their turn to Twitter reflects a broader need for the Muslim Brotherhood to engage with and reassure Egyptians and the West. The Brotherhood has been banned since 1954 and long held down by autocratic regimes. However, their recently established political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, seems likely to have the upper hand in upcoming parliamentary elections. After twenty-four protesters, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed outside Egypt’s State TV building, Maspiro, in early October, sectarian tensions ran high. Malky said it was important for the Brotherhood to use Twitter more aggressively to respond to those concerns. "Many were implicating us, saying we had a special deal with the military," he says over Skype, blaming both Egyptian state and independent media for habitually bashing Islamists. "But we’re used to fighting back and this is just a new frontier. We know we won’t change everyone’s mind in a few months, but we’re using every channel we can to correct and inform."
Malky and Miriam repeatedly emphasize that the buffed up Twitter feed isn’t a top-down decision from the Brotherhood’s notoriously stringent and webbed hierarchy, but rather an internal administrative decision made by Ikwhanweb’s editorial team who say they have full control in managing the website without Muslim Brotherhood "interference." Their tweets are not vetted, but do represent the official position of the Brotherhood — a potentially dangerous combination for any political organization. Still, they say Brotherhood big-wigs, like Khairat El-Shater, known not only as the organizational brains behind Ikhwanweb, but the most important power broker of today’s Brotherhood, "actively encourages" their online efforts.
The revamping of their Twitter feed into an instant resource hub isn’t the Brotherhood’s first attempt at establishing a vast digital footprint. In addition to Ikwhanweb and Ikwhanonline, the Brotherhood’s media extends to an extensive network of portals like Ikhwanbook, Ikhwanwtube, Ikhwanwiki, Ikhwanophobia, and Ikhwanscope. With plans to expand the unit to cover parliamentary, and later presidential, elections throughout the country, Ikhwanweb’s team of self-proclaimed "media geeks" ranges from 15-20 executives, editors, reporters, translators, and technicians. And they plan to soon share a large new office space with their Arabic counterpart Ikhwanonline.
"They’re using the same approach they always have, just now they have a new tool," says Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Center in Doha. "Liberals are tweeting and providing a certain narrative about the revolution. The Brotherhood realizes there’s a chance to push back, and say ‘Hi, we’re here too.’ They won’t leave the digital space solely to their competitors."
Perhaps because the English-language Twitter feed is engaging a largely skeptical audience, their online game has been one mostly played on defense. And for good reason, says analyst Michael Hanna of the Century Foundation. "There’s a lot to be defensive about — their internal authoritarianism, a lack of transparency regarding the source of their funds, their cozying up to hard-line Salafis," he says. "The list goes on."
Other critics point to worrying discrepancies and mismatched opaque strings of policy that blur just what those interests really are. Perhaps most notable is the Brotherhood’s stance toward women and Copts (the minority Christian population that makes up 5-10 percent of Egyptian society) in leadership roles. @Ikhwanweb recently tweeted, to much confusion, that the Brotherhood would accept and be open to nominating a Copt or female prime minister "if it was necessary." Just an hour before they tweeted they would "accept a woman, whether Muslim or Copt, if she’s elected by the people to be president."
"The president is different than the Prime Minister position," Malky clarifies in a fit of mental calisthenics over Twitter. "The Muslim Brotherhood is OK with woman or copt as prez IF elected by the people although, we won’t nominate either on a FJP ticket. Nominating is one thing and accepting if elected by majority or another party ticket is another," Malky direct-messages in a split-second. "Fahemtee? LOL." (Do you understand?)
That’s the thing. Not many do. Such confusion in laying out a complicated political program in 140-character snippets has led many tweeps to chide the group for not only failing to put forth a unified stance but instead producing a disingenuous Ikhwanonline ‘lite’ version for a Western audience.
Ed Husain, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has been tweet-spatting daily with @Ikhwanweb after he ran a piece on his CFR blog "Is the Muslim Brotherhood Bribing Voters in Egypt?" Ikwhanweb promptly issued a response, to which Husain then responded. Husain calls Malky an archetypal spin-doctor, playing a game on Twitter from New York, far from the Egyptian streets.
"They put forward these people who are fluent in English, can argue well, and produce really nice quotes, but they’re not representative," Husain argues. "The Brotherhood’s backbone is deeply conservative. They’re playing a deceitful and dangerous game."
Khaled Hamza, Ikhwanweb’s chief editor who was arrested in 2008 after meeting with a human rights activist, acknowledges they have a responsibility to transparently discuss such matters. But he rejects the accusation of a double discourse. "We don’t and won’t have an apologetic discourse. We are inherently moderate in our ideology. There’s no need for us to hedge and there’s no need for people be afraid of us."
Hamid says that’s not so much manipulative as it is natural. "When people look at the Brotherhood, they often ask: ‘Don’t they have a dual discourse?’ Of course they do," he says. "They have multiple discourses and they’re playing to different audiences. That’s what political parties do. They have different personalities and currents. It’s a group of 300,000 members, what do you expect?"
The group’s casual adoption of Twitter is reflective of a central issue and broader question the Muslim Brotherhood faces in Egypt’s embryonic political landscape: who speaks for the Brotherhood? A doe-eyed 24-year-old media studies student? Or the organization’s number-two, a brawny engineer, who spent 12 years behind Mubarak’s bars?
"Both," Malky says simply.
There’s an increasingly evident difference between the Brotherhood’s use of Twitter and the more familiar constellation of liberal and secular activists. As a new political system is being born on a slow roller coaster ride of uncertainty, Egyptians are forced to confront the question of what they stand for, rather than the much easier one of what they’re against. Over the last several months, Egypt’s "Twitterati," personalities and activists, have been struggling to establish compelling ground games. Many are routinely attacked for failing to connect with the concerns of average Egyptians. But nobody doubts that the Brotherhood has a real presence on the streets. Their political program spans 45 pages and they’ve consistently brought out hundreds with simultaneous daily rallies in multiple locations across the city and in multiple governorates.
"All the liberals have, what they think is, popular support on Twitter, but there’s no relevance on the street. For us, it’s the reverse," says Miriam. "We’re working the other way."
Down in Beni Suef, a dusty Upper Egyptian governorate about 120 kilometers south of Cairo, the Brotherhood has been soft-campaigning since early last summer. Long the wellspring of their support, they’ve spearheaded weekly events like their hallmark food-drives and civic awareness workshops in nearby rural villages where the fellaheen, Egypt’s agricultural class, say only the Brotherhood comes around.
"We’ve known them for awhile," Ahmed Naguib of the al-Bidini village says, swatting a fly away from one of his deep-onyx eyes covered in cataracts from a cement factory accident a few years back. "Who else can we really trust?"
On "a slow day," fifty people are gathered in the Brotherhood’s office, eating chocolate éclair-like pastries and unpacking brown boxes, filled to the brim with new baby-blue baseball caps baring the Freedom and Justice party’s insignia — two scales set against a vibrant sea of blue and green. The secretary general of the Brotherhood in Beni Suef, Abdel Azeem El Sharkawy, puts down his mint tea and laughs when asked about their electoral prospects.
"We’re confident. We’re not the ones separated from reality," he says, his entourage chuckling in unison. "In Egypt, the only place you’ll find a liberal, a secular is on Twitter or on talk-shows."
Back in the bustling capital at a crowded cafe, Miriam runs through a looming to-do list, taking her smartphone out of its brown leather case to check the time.
"Hey, I have to go to Mom’s rally, I’m late," she says. Soon, she was sweeping through a crowd of hundreds gathered in front of Mubarak’s former presidential palace, passing pocket-sized glossy yellow and blue flyers roadside to drivers.
"We’ve got a campaign truck outside of Mubarak’s old house," a few of the young men chant giddily. "We’ve been waiting to do this for awhile," says 47-year-old Mohammed Ahmed, in what seems like a vast understatement. The truck starts blasting triumphant nationalist songs from its speakers, and soon the crowd, teeming with children propped up on shoulders, marches through a Christian area in the upscale Cairo suburb chanting, "Copts our brothers, we will protect them."
A few nights later, close by, but in a seemingly different world, liberal parliamentary candidate Amr Hamzawy drew in 30 or so people at a quiet upscale bookstore, where glossy photo-books of the revolution and books like "Tweets from Tahrir" line the oak shelves.
Miriam snaps a few photographs of her mother, who dashed through back alleys with a female brigade of Brotherhood members, waving to residents watching from open-windows and shaking storeowners’ hands like a rock star. "This is what we do best," Miriam says, a sparkle in her eyes. "The streets. And this is what matters."
Lauren E. Bohn is a Fulbright fellow and multimedia journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @LaurenBohn.