Egyptian Islamist group faces key leadership question

Following the death of its supreme leader last week, the Muslim Brotherhood may take democratic steps.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

In Egypt, public demonstrations are discouraged. They rarely number more than a few thousand people.

So the sight of 100,000 mourners marching from mosque to cemetery last week for the funeral of Moustafa Mashhour, the Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, was unusual. The massive public display showed that the Brotherhood - Egypt's largest opposition force - still maintains widespread support despite long-time repression by the government.

With the leadership void left by Mr. Mashhour's death, the Brotherhood, which is known for its social activism as well as a radical brand of Islam, is at a crossroads. Despite a government crackdown over the past few years, the Brotherhood's appeal has grown, in large part due to younger members who are more committed to democracy and human rights in Egypt. If a younger leader gets the nod, it could signal a significant shift in focus, as well as more openness for this organization and possibly for other opposition groups as well.

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"We are not going to rush into any decisions concerning the choice of anyone for the leadership," says deputy leader Mamoun Al Hodeiby, who is from the old guard and will likely succeed Mashhour. But lately, there has been a great deal of talk about the need to pass the torch to the younger set.

One candidate could be Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who, at 53 years old, is a member of the "middle" generation. As the leader of the Cairo University student union, he confronted then-President Anwar Sadat on national television and condemned his regime as corrupt.

Mr. Fotouh and his colleagues are credited with restoring the organization following the intense repression of the years under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, when hundreds of its radical members were imprisoned and executed. After years underground, the Brotherhood was allowed back into the public sphere during the 1970s under Mr. Sadat. The movement, with the help of Aboul Fotouh, gradually rebuilt itself in the universities and among professionals.

"From the end of the 1970s until today, we cannot think about the Muslim Brotherhood without the contribution of this 'middle generation,' " explains Dia Rashwan, an expert on Islamist movement from the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. While the leadership was still from the old group that was used to meeting in secret rooms and plotting clandestine actions, this new generation came out of student politics and gained skill in negotiating with other movements and winning support.

The younger members also modernized the organization's ideology, issuing a manifesto supporting democracy, women's right to work, and education.

Yet aside from admitting Fotouh to the Guidance Council, there seems to have been little effort to include more younger members in the leadership. "It will take some time," says Essam Al Erian, another member of the middle generation who was active in student and syndicate politics. "Our society has its traditions."

Together with Fotouh, Mr. Erian was part of 20 Brotherhood members imprisoned by the government in 1995 for five years in what signaled a new wave of repression of the group. Despite renouncing violence in the 1970s and getting its members elected to parliament in the 1980s, the Brotherhood was accused of having links to violent Islamist organizations. Since that time, many more Brotherhood members have been imprisoned.

While 17 members, running as independents, were elected to the 454-seat legislature, most experts say that government interference at the polls prevented many others from gaining office.

The middle generation has been making its mark through various social services such as affordable health clinics and education programs.

The government, however, has targeted this dynamic stratum of the organization. In the past seven years of crackdowns, the government has imprisoned only younger members of the group, leaving the aging and passive leadership alone. For this reason, many experts say that the organization will stay nominally under the control of the old group as long as the government keeps a watchful eye.

"It's not easy to create a new Muslim Brotherhood, especially when they live under such internal government pressure," Rashwan says. With President Hosni Mubarak getting on in years, the country appears to be in a state of flux, with no clear leader to succeed him, and a dynamic Brotherhood might invite too much attention from a nervous military.

Still, a compromise position may be reached, giving the position of deputy supreme guide - the position previously held by Hodeibi - to someone from the middle generation, though no one from the brotherhood would confirm this.

But the role that the middle generation is already playing - such as their success in the recent elections - is having an impact, no matter who the leader is.

"[In] a big organization like the Muslim Brotherhood, the policies cannot be drawn by one person it is an institution," Erian says.

"The vast majority of the organization is under 30 or 40, and I think the majority that rules and regulates everything is from the same generation."

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