4:00am

Tue April 5, 2011
Middle East

In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood's Youth Seek Voice

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. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

To an African country now that has already rid itself of an unpopular president - Egypt. The country's largest Islamist group - repressed and jailed under Hosni Mubarak's regime - is now free to organize as a legal, political party. But just as the Muslim Brotherhood is finally poised to gain political power, it's facing a challenge from within - from its youth wing. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Cairo.

DEBORAH AMOS: More than 300 young Egyptian Islamists in business suits and fashionable headscarves, gather 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 through 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.

Walid Hadad, a chemical engineer, joined the Brotherhood more than a decade ago.

Mr. WALID HADAD (Chemical Engineer): Now there is a big debate for Muslim Brotherhood and this is a part of the freedom actually. We are expressing ourselves.

AMOS: The discussions 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 younger members in decision-making at the top.

Mr. AHMED OSAMA (Marketing Specialist): So I think they have to change or they will be changed.

AMOS: You think they can't change their mentality.

Mr. OSAMA: I think it's very hard because when you are talking to a guy 70 years old, it's not easy to change them. They will change or they will go.

AMOS: The old guard, known as the Prison Generation for surviving repeated round-ups, dismissed this event. Senior leaders just 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 those young members, but it all depends on what he calls the situation.

Mr. SOBHI SALEH (Lawyer/Former Member of Parliament): (Through Translator) We want the same things, but we have different experiences. Now the situation is not stable.

AMOS: Sobhi 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, says Saleh.

Mr. SALEH: (Through Translator) These young people have not experienced the detentions and being followed around by security and denied job opportunities. They have not known that.

AMOS: For Ahmed Osama, his most memorable experience: When he joined the popular uprising on Tahrir Square on January 25th, on the first day of the revolution. He was in the square again on Friday...

(Soundbite of protesters)

AMOS: ...despite the Brotherhood's call to stay away from the protest, to give the military a chance to stabilize the country.

Mr. OSAMA: We don't know why the army is so slow about this. I think we can push them to make our demands come true.

AMOS: Osama bridles at suggestions he doesn't have enough experience to demand the Brotherhood must change, too.

Mr. OSAMA: This is the same statements that Mubarak regime said before they stepped down: You don't have enough experience.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSAMA: It's all of the same, the same one.

AMOS: 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, says Osama. Egyptians now worry that the powerful Islamist group is poised to take power.

Mr. OSAMA: Their image has to change. Because many people, they said, oh, the Muslim Brotherhood have their own agenda; they are alone; they want to take over the government. If they use the youth power they have, if they give them more freedom, I think the image of the Muslim Brotherhood will be much better.

AMOS: And if not, he says, the Brotherhood will continue to fracture.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Cairo.

MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.