By Mokhtar Awad, George Washington University

*This memo was originally drafted as a part of the Islam, Islamists, and the Media in a Changing Middle East workshop held at George Washington University on October 28, 2016.

Over the last three years the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has suffered what is arguably the worst crackdown in its 89-year old history, leading to unprecedented fragmentation and an internal power struggle. State repression is nothing new for the organization. It has weathered the assassination of its founder and the rounding up of its members in the 1950s-60s, almost to the point of extinction. The group has also witnessed power struggles and divisions throughout its history. Due to the secretive nature of the organization, many of these disputes were dealt with quietly and the resolution usually ended up in the defection of dissidents to either found terrorist groups or moderate political parties.

The one exception was the 1953 struggle between Supreme Guide Hassan al-Hudaybi and renegade commander of the Secret Apparatus Abdel Rahman al-Sanadi, when supporters of the latter stormed the headquarters of the organization.[1] A power struggle no less dramatic has been playing out over the past three years inside the Brotherhood. But unlike 1953, the group’s leadership is now scattered across the world and its members operate underground. There are no physical headquarters to be stormed. Instead – and for the first time –rival factions have been clashing with each other over the airwaves and the Internet as they seek to consolidate control over a scattered organization. This has helped provide unprecedented insight into the MB’s usually opaque power structure and a real time understanding of dynamics as opposed to relying on memoirs written years after the events.

Both traditional and new media have been critical tools in this internal struggle. Different satellite channels compete to “set the tone” for the group’s struggle against the regime and the rhythm of the organization through their programming and guests they allow on air. Rival factions now operate two different websites and have two different spokesmen on social media. Each first and foremost concerned with securing the loyalty of the MB rank and file. Senior leaders post rival statements on websites and followers instantly react on their Facebook walls, sometimes arguing with each other. Other members have also set up independent Facebook pages to assert their demands or act as privateers on behalf of one faction to land blows against their rivals.

This fascinating new environment naturally allows forces outside the MB’s traditionally rigid structure to interfere in this internal struggle with either their financing or through media activism. This has significant consequences for the organization and the Egyptian Islamist movement overall as different Imams and ideologues—ranging from the “moderate” to the outright Takfiri—can compete for ratings and as a consequence possibly influence. The new diverse media environment also provides a useful tool to help analyze internal MB dynamics and help answer the fundamental question of who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s dissident Islamists.

History of Brotherhood media

Since its founding, the MB and its members have prolifically produced acculturation material and other propaganda through their own magazines, books, and articles. This written material became more important as the organization grew and the Supreme Guide’s recurring messages to MB Usras, the smallest organizational unit, became a critical tool for maintaining communication between the leadership and the rank and file.

However the government forbade the MB, like virtually any other political entity, from operating its own radio or television channels. Although Islamic content made its way on these two platforms, no explicitly Islamist content was allowed. This began to change for the MB with the Internet age as the group was among the first to commission new websites beginning in 1998 with a website for its print publication Al-Dawah.[2]

Other websites were launched in subsequent years by the organization that kept the explicit link to the MB hidden—ostensibly for security reasons—and primarily focused on Islamic content and general Islamist political issues. By the early 2000s the group began to experiment with explicitly political websites, among them Egyptwindow.net in 2002 and in 2003 the first official website Ikhwanonline.net, which became one of the most popular websites in Egypt. By the mid-2000s, some Muslim Brotherhood youth began to operate political blogs that raised awareness of conditions in Egypt and the detention of MB leaders.[3] Some MB youth also formed the social media crowd-sourced network Rassd, which became an instant hit as it posted news and pictures from Tahrir Square during the January 2011 revolution.

Following the uprising, the MB had the first opportunity to launch its own satellite network, Misr 25. Quickly it became apparent that the channel was more than just a propaganda platform. It represented the image of the Brotherhood for many Egyptians who were never personally familiar. The group had also long talked about how it wished for media in Egypt to be “purposeful,” code for conservative and moral. The network was the Brotherood’s opportunity to lead by example and content was carefully curated. All female hosts wore a conservative hijab and uncovered women were rarely seen. Religious content was also generally in keeping with Sufi leaning traditions, or “Brotherhood moderate.”

Yet the channel’s political content was polarizing and reflected increasing tensions in society. One host, Nour Abdel Hafiz also known as “Khamees,” was the target of numerous segments on the political satire show El-Bernameg. He was represented as a detestable apologist for the MB and Morsi. Sometimes radical Salafists like Mohamed al-Zawahiri and Islamic Group members like Assem Abdel Maged were invited on air. However, the most polarizing content was usually aired by Salafist networks loyal to the MB but not explicitly tied to it. On these pro-MB Salafi networks, hosts dismissed Morsi’s opponents as either nonbelievers or traitors and demonized symbols of secularism in Egyptian society.

The evolution of the Brotherhood’s post-coup media empire

Following the July 2013 coup, the new government swiftly shutdown Misr 25 and pro-MB Salafi channels fearing a platform for Islamists to reach and mobilize supporters. However, this media blackout was instantly bridged. Regional Brotherhood linked channels like Jordanian Al-Yarmouk and Hamas’s Al-Quds and Al-Aqsa networks carried live feeds from Rabaa square. Al-Jazeera and its Egypt focused Mubashir Misr network provided a platform for MB leaders.[4] During this time, MB activists also began to more heavily rely on social media platforms and produce independent content.

Shortly after Misr 25 was shut down, the Brotherhood quickly came back with Ahrar 25 as the main MB channel, though it had sporadic coverage and poor production quality. In December 2013, the decision was made to launch Rabaa network from Istanbul as the first major foreign-based MB opposition channel. Although the MB played a key role in launching the network,[5] it remains unclear to what extent it centrally controlled the channel.

By the summer of 2014, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had nearly half a dozen Turkey-based satellite networks supporting it.[6] The group evolved to recognize satellite TV’s power to not only raise spirits and communicate with supporters, but also prove that the organization still had the wherewithal to support a multi-million long-term media opposition campaign against the Egyptian government.

Mapping Brotherhood and pro-Brotherhood networks content

As the new networks were being launched, a new temporary Crisis Management Committee and other temporary bodies were taking over the reins of the MB. Although the period was undoubtedly chaotic, there was still a degree of organization as the group successfully set up bases in exile and launched networks. While it wasn’t clear who editorialized the content on these networks, they were connected to each other, with guests from one network appearing on the other, referencing each other, and creating an echo chamber.

On the far right of the spectrum stood Rabaa network in inciting violence.[7] It had an explicitly Salafi-Brotherhood bent with clerics such as Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud and Wagdy Ghoneim appearing as guests and leading their own shows. Former Islamic Group leader Assem Abdel Maged had a show titled “Egypt is Islamic.” Radical former Morsi-era Awqaf Ministry cleric Salama Abdel Qawy hosted the main flagship show. Revolutionary Salafi leader Mahmoud Fathy, who advocated for violent “revolutionary” action, also appeared frequently on this network and others. The network had become so radical and explicit in its incitement of violence that in January 2015 it aired a message by an unknown group threatening to target Westerners in Egypt.[8] This overreach helped the Egyptian government convince the French satellite company, Eutelsat, to drop Rabaa in May 2015.[9] The network however returned as AlThawra network with the same clerics and appears to be still active to this day. The specific sources of funding have never been revealed, but are believed to be Egyptian and Gulf businessmen.

Another network, Mekamleen, rose to prominence as it aired the infamous Sisi leaks in early 2015. Mekamleen has more news content than Rabaa and attempts to appeal to Islamist youth by having younger hosts and programs geared towards them. The channel still echoed calls for “revolutionary,” code for violent, action by the youth. It also invited clerics like Wagdy Ghoneim and presented him as an acceptable religious figure for youth to listen to, even though he had been explicitly Takfiri in his discourse. The network also invited clerics like Salama Abdel Qawy. In one “town hall” style show, surrounded by youth, he calmly issued a fatwa that Sisi should be killed and whomever kills him and the “big criminals” will be rewarded by God.[10] Finally, Brotherhood clerics like Essam Telemeh, former office manager of Imam Youssef El Qaradwi, has his own fatwa show called Yestaftonak. In one appearance, Telemeh justified the killing of the Mufti and Egyptian judges on religious grounds saying that they should be treated like thugs and that unlike other categories of criminals, thugs can be killed by any member in society without the permission of the ruler.[11]

Mekamleen still broadcasts to this day, but after receiving a warning in 2015 from Eutelsat the network stopped allowing Wagdy Ghoneim on air as they feared that his frequent anti-Semitic comments will force the network to shut down.[12] The sources of funding have never been disclosed, but according to an employee, the network mainly relies on financing from Gulf businessmen and other private individuals.[13]

Misr al-An was the one network that was explicitly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and its active coverage during the period from summer 2014 to fall 2015 ranged from news, variety/entertainment, to religious content. In a December 2015 interview on Al-Jazeera, MB Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein said that a committee of his set up the channel.[14] Initially, Wagdy Ghoneim was brought on as a frequent guest but as pressure grew the network stopped having him on-air. In late 2014 and spring 2015 the network engaged in the most explicit incitement of violence as it cheered on newly founded militant groups like Revolutionary Punishment. One of the most serious incidents happened during January 2015 when the network’s main host said: “I say to the wife of every officer…your husband will die, your children will be orphaned…these kids [“revolutionaries”] will kill the officers in Egypt.”[15] Misr al-An also sometimes invited radical figures like Shahid Bolsen, an Islamist anti-capitalist ideologue who advocated for targeting foreign owned businesses.[16]

The other major network, El-Sharq, gained prominence after it too aired leaked recordings of senior government officials. Initially, the network echoed its sister channels in calls for “revolutionary action” with its owner Bassem Khafagy personally appearing on air on several occasions to deliver messages intended to mobilize Islamists. After facing significant financial pressure, the network was taken over by prominent Egyptian political figure Ayman Nour with other undisclosed investors.[17] The move attempted to symbolize how the pro-Brotherhood networks reflected a broad segment of Egyptian opposition figures and “liberals” like Ayman Nour. Initially, content on El-Sharq after the Nour takeover was mild and one uncovered woman was given her own show – albeit a “political” cooking show. This appears to have been a temporary façade, however. Radical clerics Salama Abdel Qawy[18] and Mahmoud Fathy[19] now have their own shows on El-Sharq.

Competition over media in the Brotherhood’s internal power struggle

As the on-air content of these networks grew more radical, the existence and influence of a distinct “revolutionary” faction became increasingly clear.

This “revolutionary” faction comprised some members of the Crisis Committee, High Administrative Committee, and a new office for Egyptian MB leaders abroad, including Brotherhood leaders like Ahmad Abdel Rahman and Mohamed Kamal. After Egyptian police killed Mohamed Kamal in October 2016, it was revealed that he had headed the High Administrative Committee and was effectively the leader of the revolutionary faction.[20] Kamal had allegedly greenlit the founding of so called “special committees” that began to practice violence in 2014. And as Brotherhood leader and Kamal lieutenant Magdy Shelesh explained on Mekamleen following Kamal’s death, their plan was to escalate the conflict with the regime starting in January 2015.[21] At that time, more protests were organized and a more sophisticated militant group called Revolutionary Punishment was formed echoing the tone set by the satellite networks.

As some Brotherhood elements on the ground began to engage in armed violence and others on the air incited them, older and more senior leaders recoiled.[22] They believed that the Crisis Committee and other newly formed bodies were meant to be temporary and had overreached. Just as importantly, these older leaders were being sidelined and serious internal disagreements over internal bureaucratic processes and bylaws had emerged. This “old guard” faction included Acting-Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat, Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein, and now London based deputy Supreme Guide Ibrahim Munir. However, as previously noted, Mahmoud Hussein did set up Misr al-An.[23] It remains unclear when exactly the old guard decided that their media creations had gone too far.

In spring 2015, this internal power struggle came out to the open.[24] Members of the old guard weren’t allowed to appear on the networks, while their detractors launched attacks against them. The revolutionary faction then had its own spokesmen whose messages were broadcast on the channels and consistently challenged the authority of the old guard leaders. Old guard leaders were also allegedly not allowed to post articles on the main MB website Ikhwanonline.com, and in response launched their own rival website, Ikhwan.site, [25] and social media accounts. As this was brewing, London based leader Ibrahim Munir attempted to assert power and exercise his new position as deputy Supreme Guide. He began to appear on London-based MB linked network Al-Hewar, founded by Azzam Al Tamimi in 2006. The network began to dedicate more airtime for Egypt coverage, and a prominent host from Mekamleen, Osama Gaweesh, transferred there.

As this was happening, new Facebook pages claiming to speak for disfranchised Brothers popped up. The most notable example was that of “Ikhwan Voice,”[26] which launched attacks against the old guard and uploaded internal documents, including the passport page of Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein to show their reach.[27] Such unprecedented behavior in the media prompted some to speculate that perhaps some MB members were calling the authorities on each other to settle scores.

The Brotherhood old guard, however, had more money and experience and weren’t shy to use unconventional tactics. Supporters of the revolutionary faction alleged that rebelling MB regional offices that refused to recognize the authority of the old guard received less money.[28] This may have played a role in winding down the operations of violent groups like Revolutionary Punishment. Other violence deployed by the special committees and other MB linked groups also saw a precipitous drop starting in the summer of 2015.[29] The old guard and their supporters also began to walk back some of the more incendiary stances.

The most audacious and decisive move by the old guard was the taking over of Misr al-An. According to an investigation by Islamist leaning website Noonpost, based on original internal MB documents and Turkish legal documents, the takeover began when Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein ordered the acting president of Misr al-An to sign over the network to a front company the old guard established.[30] The move allowed the old guard’s men in Turkey to have editorial influence over the new channel.

This new network, called Watan,[31] meaning homeland, began broadcasting around February 2016. Viewers tuning into the new channel will instantly recognize its more professional production quality and content. Although anti-government rhetoric remains, the hosts are far less fiery. Egyptian militant groups are not explicitly praised, though Hamas militant content is aired.[32] The channel now has a wider variety of religious programming with a traditional Brotherhood-Sufi bent that airs Sufi chanting or nasheeds. The network also has consistent news content with news hours throughout the day. Its programming appears to be designed to broaden its base to more Egyptians and attract Brotherhood viewers who may have been turned off by the explicit incitement on the other channels. The network’s main hire was famous Egyptian actor turned dissident Hesham Abdulla, a move that surprised many Egyptians who didn’t know their beloved actor had MB sympathies. There is a call-in radio show and another show hosted by a man in full farmer garb and accent designed to appeal to farmers and uneducated Egyptians, and Khamees is back with the same show he hosted on Misr 25.

When the revolutionary wing launched what amounted to an internal coup, assuming all leadership positions and officially relieving old guard leaders of their posts, in December 2016 the media tools proved critical. The new wing relied on social media to get the message out and set up Ikhwanonline.info to rival the official .com version the old guard retook. For their part, old guard leaders took to Watan and their own websites to dismiss the power grab. This back and forth has left the base confused about who exactly were their legitimate leaders.

Conclusion

Media tools played an unprecedented role in how the Muslim Brotherhood adapted to its new reality of repression. The transformations in the MB’s media empire mirrored the mood, tendencies, and power struggles inside the organization, providing a unique window for researchers to study these developments in real time.

The satellite networks and new media platforms also showed how easy it could be for dissidents to challenge leaders and for radicals to introduce their ideas into the body of the Muslim Brotherhood. These media platforms helped bridge the connective tissue lost between members, leaders, and clerics in a time of extreme repression. Through these media platforms, Brotherhood leaders and clerics also attempt to acculturate a fragmented organization and win over a young rebellious generation. When left unchecked, Brotherhood clerics and their Salafist allies with Gulf funding quickly propagated the most hateful, violent, and sectarian expressions of Islamism, arguably helping radicalize some youth by providing them with religious justifications for violence against the state. Now the old guard is using the same media tools to counter these extreme calls and answer the question of who speaks for the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet new media platforms will always challenge the attempted consolidation by the old guard of traditional media like satellite television. Dissidents will still have access to their Facebook pages and websites. Indeed, in 2016, at least two new militant groups that are ideologically aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood have sprung up.[33] One Facebook page called “Resistance Media” frequently posts propaganda geared towards Islamist and Brotherhood youth.[34] The militant groups also have their own media platforms, specifically encrypted ones like Telegram, where they can reach their audiences uninterrupted. As the Brotherhood continues to evolve to face new challenges, its internal and external struggles will be reflected in the media its leaders produce and its changing audience consumes.


[1] Ashour, Omar. 2009. The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. Routledge.

[2] Ahmad Hafez. “Muslim Brotherhood Websites,” Ikhwanweb. 2008. http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.php/2013/12/article.php?id=18865

[3] March Lynch. “Brotherhood of the blog,” The Guardian. 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2007/mar/05/brotherhoodoftheblog

[4] Mubashir Misr was later suspended by Al-Jazeera in December 2014. Anecdotally this appears to have helped the ratings of MB and pro-MB channels as viewers looked for alternatives.

[5] Waleed Abdel Rahman. “Expectation of increased tension between Egypt and Turkey after launch of Muslim Brotherhood’s Channel.” Al Sharq al-Awsat. 2013. http://archive.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=754612&issueno=12807#.WA8ho4WcE2x; Nasr al-Magali. “Muslim Brotherhood Rabaa channel launches from Istanbul.” Elaph. 2013. http://elaph.com/Web/news/2013/12/854387.html?entry=arab

[6] BBC Monitoring. “Egypt’s Brotherhood expands media machine.” 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/monitoring/egypts-brotherhood-expands-media-machine

[7] Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem, Egypt’s Escalating Islamist Insurgency (Beirut: Carnegie Middle East Center, 2015). http://carnegieendowment.org/files/CMEC_58_Egypt_Awad_Hashem_final.pdf

[8] BBC Monitoring. “Pro-Brotherhood Media Air Calls for Violence.” 2015. http://www.bbc.co.uk/monitoring/probrotherhood-media-air-calls-for-violence

[9] Arabia 21. “Shut down of Rabaa channel, warning to Mekamleen, and attack on Al Jazeera.” 2015. https://arabi21.com/story/828080/غلق-قناة-رابعة-وإنذار-مكملين-ومهاجمة-الجزيرة

[10] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2QQjHGZp3V4

[11] Awad and Hashem.

[12] Interview with Mekamleen employee, Turkey, June 2016.

[13] Ibid.

[14] See: https://youtu.be/Cu1LRF6eAGo

[15] Mokhtar Awad and Nathan Brown, “Mutual Escalation in Egypt,” The Washington Post. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/09/mutual-escalation-in-egypt/

[16] Mokhtar Awad and Samuel Tadros, “Allah Versus KFC,” Foreign Policy. 2015. http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/27/allah-versus-kfc-egypt-arab-spring-terrorism/

[17] The Cairo Post. “Pro-Brotherhood channel to re-broadcast under Ayman Nour” 2015. http://thecairopost.youm7.com/news/165372/inside_egypt/pro-brotherhood-channel-to-re-broadcast-under-ayman-nour

[18] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8wqrsUG_p0

[19] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q81ZD-0494Q

[20] Mohamed Hamama. “Interior Ministry announces death of influential Brotherhood leader.” Mada Masr. 2016. http://www.madamasr.com/en/2016/10/06/feature/politics/interior-ministry-announces-death-of-influential-brotherhood-leader/

[21] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffxvHduo064&feature=youtu.be

[22] Awad and Hashem.

[23] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cu1LRF6eAGo

[24] Samuel Tadros, “The Brotherhood Divided,” Current Trends in Islamist Ideology 19

(August 2015) http://www.hudson.org/research/11530-the-brotherhood-divided

[25] See: http://ikhwan.site/

[26] See: https://www.facebook.com/%D8%B5%D9%88%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-364674683729077/

[27] See: https://www.facebook.com/364674683729077/photos/a.364783523718193.1073741828.364674683729077/394872574042621/?type=3&theater

[28] Written testimony to UK Parliament Inquiry on Political Islam. 2016. http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/foreign-affairs-committee/political-islam/written/32560.html

[29] Ibid.

[30] Noonpost. “With documents: Brotherhood media a tool in the struggle and crisis.” 2016. https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:swpTil3E-ooJ:https://www.noonpost.net/%25D8%25A3%25D8%25B2%25D9%2585%25D8%25A9-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25A5%25D8%25AE%25D9%2588%25D8%25A7%25D9%2586/%25D8%25A8%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D9%2588%25D8%25AB%25D8%25A7%25D8%25A6%25D9%2582-%25D8%25A5%25D8%25B9%25D9%2584%25D8%25A7%25D9%2585-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25A5%25D8%25AE%25D9%2588%25D8%25A7%25D9%2586-%25D8%25A3%25D8%25AF%25D8%25A7%25D8%25A9-%25D9%2581%25D9%258A-%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25B5%25D8%25B1%25D8%25A7%25D8%25B9-%25D9%2588%25D8%25A7%25D9%2584%25D8%25A3%25D8%25B2%25D9%2585%25D8%25A9+&cd=1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us; Noonpost. “What are the implications of the shuting down of Masr l-An in the context of the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle?” 2015. https://web.archive.org/web/20160307222846/http://www.noonpost.net/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%84%D9%85%D9%88%D9%86/%D9%85%D8%A7-%D9%87%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A5%D8%BA%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A2%D9%86-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A3%D8%B2%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%9F

[31] See: https://www.facebook.com/watanegypt ; https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDA4qHb3ViIeZgEJNz3FiMQ/featured

[32] See: https://youtu.be/0CPGGYAiz7A

[33] Mokhtar Awad. “What Egypt’s assassination attempts say about its insurgency.” Atlantic Council. 2016. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/component/content/article?id=32626:what-egypt-s-assassination-attempts-say-about-its-islamist-insurgency

[34] See: https://www.facebook.com/qawem.media2/?fref=ts

The role of traditional and new media in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s internal power struggle