CAIRO — Ahmed Fatehelbab and his young Islamist friends used to speak in code to evade Egyptian authorities as they planned gatherings over the phone. With the overthrow this month of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, however, the old cover of "a doctor's appointment at 4 p.m." is obsolete.
"Now it's, 'Hey, we're meeting at my place at 7,' " Fatehelbab, 24, said with a laugh.
The collapse of Egypt's authoritarian government has opened unprecedented political space for Islamist movements, which the old regime portrayed to Western allies as extremist groups that threatened to destabilize the Middle East. Today's Islamist youth activists, far more tolerant and technology-savvy than their parents' generation is, seek to dispel that stereotype.
Fatehelbab and thousands of other young Islamist-leaning revolutionaries are at the vanguard of the new Egypt, meeting daily to form parties and lobby groups while still nursing wounds from clashes with Mubarak's authorities. The youths who fought alongside secular, Christian and other non-Islamist peers not only helped to unseat one of the world's longest-serving autocrats, they're also rewriting the rhetoric of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and other established Islamist blocs.
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The voice they found during the anti-Mubarak protests could just as easily be raised against the traditional Islamist leadership if the old guard doesn't conform to their demands for a more democratic Egypt, several activists said.
"The obstacle against them is removed, so it's showtime," said Fatehelbab, whose arm was broken in the recent violence. "Will people in the Islamist movement seize the opportunity in front of them and present themselves as a mature political force pushing toward stability and freedom?"
"Very soon, and it's happening already, there will be no such thing as the Muslim Brotherhood anymore. The organization will be there, but it will have been transcended," said Ibrahim el Houdaiby, 27, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were supreme leaders of the Brotherhood.
The government banned el Houdaiby from travel at age 24 after he gave talks in the United States that "defamed Egypt's image abroad," according to the charges against him. In reality, he said, his lecture had lauded Turkey as an example of a modern, democratic Muslim state. He left the Brotherhood the next year, and he now focuses on reform work with his two closest allies: an Arab nationalist and a socialist.
Range of Muslims
Egypt's Islamists cover the spectrum of Muslim devotion, from mystical Sufi orders to literalist Salafis. Across the board, defiant young activists joined the protests against the edicts of many sheiks, who were either in the pay of the Mubarak administration or concerned about internecine bloodshed leading to a civil war.
Islamist clerics and politicians who supported the protests from Day 1 earned loyalty and high praise from the youths, who could play a kingmaker role in coming elections. The elder statesmen of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most widely known and best-organized opposition group, are losing popularity as a reform-minded, youth-backed wing gains ground.
"They should have a political party that's separate from the religious group. It should be civil and include other movements as an example that the Brotherhood is ready to engage everybody and isn't trying to take over," said Sondos Asem, 24, whose father and mother are senior Brotherhood figures.
The Brotherhood is the historic Islamist group whose radical offshoots include Hamas and other militant groups. In Egypt, however, the Brotherhood is widely seen as a moderate group with a nationwide social-services network and a longtime disavowal of violence. Officially banned by the state, the Brotherhood was relentlessly persecuted during Mubarak's 30-year regime, with its members arrested en masse and tried before military courts under Egypt's infamous emergency law.
Many of today's most visible youth activists grew up in Brotherhood households, exposed to the struggle as children who witnessed their parents hauled off by Mubarak's security forces in the middle of the night.
The new generation appreciates the sacrifices of its elders, but many are reluctant to swear allegiance to the Brotherhood, which is viewed in some Islamist circles as outdated and reactionary. While some activists are eager to see a progressive, diverse political party emerge from the Brotherhood, others prefer that the organization focus on its social services and human rights campaigns.
In the midst of Egypt's turmoil, the Brotherhood issued statements saying it wouldn't field a presidential candidate and was committed to the country's treaties, a reference to Egypt's longtime peace agreement with Israel. Now, several young activists said, the Brotherhood should revisit its controversial stance that no women or non-Muslims will rule Egypt.