Egyptian Islamist Group Faces Key Leadership Question ; Following the Death of Its Supreme Leader Last Week, the Muslim Brotherhood May Take Democratic Steps

Article excerpt

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.

"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. …