CAIRO // The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's powerful Islamist opposition movement, will launch its own version of the hugely popular social networking website Facebook within the next several months, its members say. IkhwanBook, which is already up, running and accepting members at www.ikhwanfacebook.com, borrows many of the same social concepts - such as image and video sharing, live chatting and online "friendships" - that attracted some 400 million users to the original Facebook after only six years.
Yet given the Brotherhood's goals of recruiting new members and popularising its relatively moderate conception of political Islam, the new site seems somewhat counter-intuitive, say some of the movement's followers and observers. With a subscriber base that exceeds the population of most large countries, Facebook should be the perfect platform for propagating ideas and attracting adherents. But defenders of the site say they envision IkhwanBook as a complementary parallel - not a replacement - for Facebook. The organisation, members say, wants a social networking site of its own that can be tailored to its unique need for privacy, security and decency.
"I think that it's important that we have channels which are not contradictory to the original Facebook but which are parallel to it," said Ahmed Said, an engineer and a member of the Brotherhood's media development team. "We will not be isolated. Many groups have their own social network on the net. The name is Ikhwan, but it is not limited to Ikhwan. It is open to everyone." IkhwanBook joins a veritable suite of Brotherhood-affiliated ("Ikhwan" is Arabic for "Brotherhood") websites, such as IkhwanWiki, IkhwanWeb, IkhwanGoogle - a "Cusotmized [sic] search engine specialized in searching muslim botherhood's [sic] websites" - and IkhwanTube. Many of the sites are published in English and each of their functions is tailored to Brotherhood-related content.
Each site demonstrates the Brotherhood's zeal - if not exactly a perfect technical command - for digital communication and outreach. But it is not yet clear whether the group's seemingly limitless enthusiasm for the web is practical or even effective. "When [Brotherhood founder] Hassan al Banna started his call for people to return to the real Islam, he started by promoting this idea in coffee shops, in places where there are people who should be helped to return to Islam," said Mosab Ragab, 22, a Brotherhood member. "When I think today that I am calling people who are frequenting the internet to real Islam, I'll also study where they are, what are the places they go to. I will not establish a site or a place for myself and say 'OK, here I am. Whoever wants to find my ideas they can come to my place.' I find where those people are and I go to them."
Mr Ragab described IkhwanBook as technically "weak" because it relies on an open-source version of the original Facebook software rather than the company's more advanced proprietary version. Despite that IkhwanBook is technically lacking and will certainly include far fewer than 400 million users, it will offer some advantages Facebook cannot. Facebook can delete a user's account if they receive a certain number of complaints, said Mr Said. Such a policy makes pages for illegal political groups like the Brotherhood vulnerable to complaints from Egypt's security authorities.
The pages of Abdel Aziz al Rantissi, one of the founders of the Palestinian militant Islamist group Hamas, and Khairat al Shater, a senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood who has been in prison for more than a decade, were both at least temporarily removed, said Mr Said. Facebook, which is based in the United States, did not respond to requests for comment. Despite questions of privacy and police surveillance Brotherhood members have a huge presence on the conventional Facebook, said Mohammed Morsey, one of the group's official spokesmen and a member of the governing Guidance Office, The foundation of IkhwanBook, he said, is motivated by nothing other than promoting "the benefit of the people", rather than avoiding censure or censorship.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood remains an officially illegal political organisation whose members are routinely harassed and detained. Perhaps understandably, the group's default attitude may lie somewhere between reasonable caution and erratic paranoia. Seen that way, the Brotherhood may simply be seeking a larger stake in its own public media strategy, said Afshin Shahi, a researcher at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in Britain.
"It is possible to argue that a combination of creativity, control and fear have encouraged the Brothers to offer their own version of Facebook," wrote Mr Shahi in an e-mail. "Facebook has over 400 million members. Of course, [the Muslim Brotherhood] could use this massive networking platform for marketing their own perspectives. "Nonetheless, they may not have 'control' over their online activities. Perhaps they regard these super networking websites as double-edged swords. They can provide effective platforms for communication, at the expense of privacy and control."