Mohammed Badie is the group's eighth leader since its formation in 1928
By Yolande Knell
BBC News, Cairo
Young Islamists in Egypt are scrutinising the first public comments made by the new leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie.
Mr Badie is a 66-year-old veterinary pathology professor.
His election by the Brotherhood's guidance bureau is widely thought to mark a return to conservatism and a possible pullback from politics.
"The choice reflects a focus on ideological education. He is more likely to take care of teaching the rank and file than public and political work," remarked blogger Abdul Moneim Mahmoud.
Mr Mahmoud runs the blog Ana Ikhwan - or I am Brotherhood - but describes his membership of the group as "frozen". He believes others may become less involved if it changes direction.
"The youth will not come up with their own initiatives or offer advice. They will not express their opinions publicly. Leaders in their 40s won't leave the organisation but it will just become like a club they belong to," he suggested.
Largest opposition party
There was an unprecedented push for political reform ahead of Egypt's last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005.
Younger Muslim Brotherhood activists like Mr Mahmoud joined members of official opposition parties and pro-democracy groups in demonstrations that put pressure on the government to allow more open elections.
Although the Brotherhood is officially banned, it won one-fifth of parliamentary seats with its members running as independents. The vote confirmed its position as Egypt's largest opposition movement.
Since then it has faced greater government repression. Constitutional amendments have barred political parties based on religion and abolished judiciary supervision of elections.
Some senior figures argue the price paid for political participation has been too high and that it threatens their important social and religious grassroots work.
Mr Badie tried to reach out to concerned reformists after assuming his new leadership role. Surrounded by journalists in his first address on 16 January, he appealed for unity.
Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organisation
Founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928
Group has influenced Islamist movements worldwide
Mixes political activism with charity work
Banned from open political activity
Rejects the use of violence and supports democratic principles
Wants to create a state governed by Islamic law
Slogan: "Islam is the Solution"
"Those who sincerely work for their God, religion and country must be as one unit, despite having different opinions," he said.
He restated his commitment to past documents affirming the equality of women under the law, protection of the rights of Egypt's Christian minority and the importance of democratic reform.
"We believe in gradual reform, which can only be achieved by a constitutional struggle based on persuasion and dialogue and definitely not through coercion," he said.
In a BBC interview last week, Mr Badie also stressed that Muslim Brotherhood candidates still plan to contest a general election due later this year.
With a presidential poll also expected in 2011, he demanded free and fair votes.
"I call on President [Hosni] Mubarak to step down as head of the National Democratic Party, to be a father to all Egyptians, and set up a transitional government to hold fair elections away from the influence of executive powers," Mr Badie said.
"He should give people the right to choose for once in his life. Do it, President Mubarak, to return prestige to Egypt," he added.
Analysts point out that the significance of a change in leadership of the Brotherhood should not be overstated.
Unlike secular parties, throughout its 80-year-history the party has depended more on strong internal structures than personalities.
"We can't expect that the group will conduct any revisions of its major political choices. It's difficult to change them even if the general guide has changed," observed Hossam Tammam, editor of Islam Online.
But Mr Tammam identifies a definite split in the movement after two prominent reformist figures, Mohammed Habib and Abdul Moneim Fatouh, lost their seats on the 16-member board of its guidance bureau ahead of Mr Badie's election. He sees this as damaging.
"The division within the Muslim Brotherhood is between two visions. One I describe as the public vision. It works in the public sphere and is open. The other tends towards organisational work. This is conservative and closed off," said Mr Tammam.
"Now all of the leadership belongs to the conservative wing. It will make mistakes that will increase the gap with other political forces," he added.
The Brotherhood's policies could have a significant impact beyond Egypt's political scene as it remains the most influential Islamist group in the Middle East.
Many of its offshoots are watching closely as they debate their own strategies of political activism.