12.26.10

Meet Radical Islam's Tech Guru

The Muslim Brotherhood’s web geeks are transforming Egypt’s Islamist group from a shadowy organization with power bases in mosques and charities to a media-savvy machine.

Despite getting trounced in the most recent election, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Web geeks are transforming Egypt’s Islamist group from a shadowy organization with power bases in mosques and charities into a media-savvy machine.

CAIRO—Abdul-Jalil Al-Sharnouby, a bespectacled tech guru, talks a mile a minute about the Internet, often ruminating on unique visitors, Web hosts, and how to evade government censors. And though Al-Sharnouby would be in his element at a sleek Silicon Valley tech company, he works out of a decrepit building on a litter-strewn downtown Cairo street.

Al-Sharnouby is the director of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Internet Committee and the editor of Ikhwanonline.com. The Islamist group, which is officially banned, but begrudgingly tolerated in Egypt, currently has hundreds of thousands of followers and is expanding thanks to Al-Sharnouby and his cybercounterparts.

For the last 10 years, the Brotherhood, whose goal is to spread conservative Muslim values into Egyptian society, has transformed from a shadowy social organization with power bases in mosques and charities, to a media and tech-savvy machine. In Egypt’s political wasteland, the strongest opposition to the secular regime not only owns the street—today, they dominate the Web.

And though the Egyptian regime accuses the Brotherhood of trying to overthrow the government and frequently cracks down on the organization, Al-Sharnouby’s site employs a full-time team of 30 and a freelance network of 45—a fairly big staff in the world of small start-ups. They work around the clock to promote the Brotherhood in cyberspace, with a contingency plan for what to do if the government raids their headquarters.

Ikhwanonline is just one of many cyberfronts maintained by the organization—among them is an English-language website that aggregates Western reporting on the group; an Islamic Facebook called Ikhwanbook; Ikhwanwtube, and Ikhwanwiki. (Ikhwan means Brotherhood in Arabic.) In real time, Brothers tweet through multiple feeds and post countless Facebook pages.

“Out of all the political groupings in Egypt, the Brotherhood has been one of the most aggressive in terms of… using the Internet as a platform to get their views across,” says Shadi Hamid, research director of Brookings Doha Center who studies the group.

“The Brotherhood has always been paranoid about how people view it. It’s an organization that’s very sensitive to outside criticism … And they’ll use any means possible to try to shift public opinion more in their direction,” Hamid said. 

In Egypt’s political wasteland, the strongest opposition to the secular regime not only owns the street—they dominate the Web.

Unlike in the Egyptian parliament, where Brotherhood-affiliated members held a 20 percent bloc of seats until contested elections last month forced them out, the group is hedging its bets on the freewheeling atmosphere of cyberspace as a way to communicate their message and rectify their image without depending on the whims of the Egyptian regime.

One of the group’s newer sites, Islamophobia is dedicated solely to the task of debunking myths surrounding the Brotherhood and changing popular perceptions abroad. Chief Editor Omar Mazin explains its mission to “respond to the ‘bashers’ … and to clarify the fact that Muslim Brotherhood is a moderate Muslim group, with no terrorism relations and with no anti-Western agenda.” And according to the Brothers, their campaign is working.

They report their Arabic news portal sees an average of a quarter of a million unique visitors a day. They are one of the top 100 websites in Egypt. On a politically sensitive day, viewership of the Arabic site spikes to around 450,000. The English language portal sees about 4,000 unique visitors per day, while there are approximately 22,000 Ikhwanbook members around the world.

But despite the relative freedom online, the Brotherhood remains wary of the regime’s ability to stymie their Web presence, hence the copycat sites. “We don’t want to put all of our stock in the big companies like Facebook, which can block our users,” says Khaled Hamza, an Internet supervisor and editor of the English language website.

Hamza explains Brotherhood users of Facebook and YouTube are frequently reported and blocked for inappropriate posting or religious incitement. If the regime suddenly clamped down on the major sites, the Brothers want backups. “They are parallel websites, not replacements,” he says. 

And perhaps they’re right to be worried; the religious group’s Web prowess has not been lost on Egypt’s secular regime. Most of their sites were blocked during Egypt’s last two rounds of parliamentary elections.

Although the group’s leading members are adamant they are not using the Web to attract converts to the cause—just set the record straight about the group—they admit it’s an added bonus. Their own sites allow them to promote their preachers and religious interpretations, intermixed with news.

The Brotherhood is known for its traditional face-to-face recruitment techniques executed by a loyal network of foot soldiers. But as younger members join the ranks, the Internet has become another avenue to execute the group’s well-honed strategy, albeit adapted to a new generation.

All Brotherhood members have a duty to preach to friends, but for college students like Mohammad Al-Aqsa these days that includes virtual ones.

“My personal belief is in the Brotherhood,” Al-Aqsa says. He wants to make it clear he’s acting alone, without direction from the Brotherhood’s organized leadership. “The same way I would try to convince my [hypothetical] friend Ahmed by talking to him, I would tell someone about the Brotherhood online by starting a conversation with them.” 

To get things moving, Al-Aqsa explains he posts pictures and religious sermons on Facebook, then tags his friends, so that their Facebook friends will see it on their newsfeeds. This way people contact him if they want to discuss what he posts; and he tries to convince them of the Brotherhood’s worth.

“It’s just a conversation,” he says, smiling. “If they agree, the rest is up to them.”

Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, the New Republic, and Slate, among others.