Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamist group, is facing a generation gap. Repressed and jailed during President Hosni Mubark's regime, the movement now has the freedom to organize a legal political party. But a youth wing is challenging the leadership.
More than 300 young Egyptian Islamists in business suits and fashionable headscarves gathered in Cairo to challenge the aging leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The disciplined movement is run by a secretive, undemocratic leadership, a necessity during the crackdowns of the Mubarak years. But for the first time, the Brotherhood can work openly in Egypt's new political landscape, and these young members say the movement has to adapt.
"Now, there is a big debate for [the] Muslim Brotherhood, and this is a part of the freedom," says Walid Hadad, a chemical engineer who joined the Brotherhood more than a decade ago. "We are expressing ourselves."
The discussions here were demanding, as speakers aired grievances and publicly tackled sensitive issues.
Ahmed Osama, a 32-year-old marketing specialist, says he wants more participation for women and, above all, a bigger role for young members in decision-making at the top.
"I think they have to change or they will be changed," he says.
When asked if he thinks the leadership can change its mentality, Osama replies: "I think it's very hard, because when you are talking to a guy who is 70 years old, it's not easy to change them.
"They will change, or they will go."
'We Want The Same Things'
The old guard, known as the prison generation for surviving repeated roundups, dismissed this event. Senior leaders stayed away, but among the broader membership opinion is divided.
At Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo, lawyer and former parliament member Sobhi Saleh says he agrees with the young members, but it all depends on what he calls "the situation."
"We want the same things, but we have different experiences," he says. "Now, the situation is not stable."
Saleh's recent rise to prominence is a sign of revolutionary political change in Egypt. He served on a constitutional reform committee, chosen by Egypt's military council, a position that would have been unthinkable for a member of the Brotherhood during Mubarak's time. The rapid change has opened public rifts as Brotherhood leaders impose tight discipline: For example, no member can join any political group other than the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. But younger members demand more choice, Saleh says.
"These young people have not experienced the detentions and being followed around by security and denied job opportunities," he says. "They have not known that."
Pushing For Change
Osama says his most memorable experience was when he joined the popular uprising on Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, on the first day of the revolution that eventually ousted Mubarak. He was in the square again Friday despite the Brotherhood's call to stay away to give the military a chance to stabilize the country.
"We don't know why the army is so slow about this," Osama says. "We can push them to make our demands come true."
Osama bridles at suggestions that he doesn't have enough experience to demand that the Brotherhood must change, too.
"Yes, that is the same statement that [the] Mubarak regime said before they stepped down," he says. " 'You don't have enough experience.' It's the same."
Many Egyptians dropped their suspicions of the Muslim Brotherhood when the common goal was ousting the Mubarak regime. But those early gains have been lost, Osama says. Egyptians worry now that the powerful Islamist group is poised to take power.
"Their image has to change. Because many people, they said, 'The Muslim Brotherhood, they have their own agenda, they are alone, they want to take over the government,' " Osama says. "If they use the youth power they have, if they give ... more freedom, I think the image of the Muslim Brotherhood will be much better."
If not, he says, the Brotherhood will continue to fracture.