Editor's note: Carrie Rosefsky Wickham is an associate professor of political science at Emory University and author of "Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt" (2002: Columbia University Press). She is writing a book on the Islamist movement's change in the Arab world for Princeton University Press.
(CNN) -- The protests rocking Egypt have been described as leaderless, but this is not exactly true.
There are leaders: young people armed with camera phones, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, who over the past few years have documented abuses under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. They've shared with each other, and the rest of the world, online footage and accounts of the torture of citizens in police custody, the use of live weapons against peaceful demonstrators.
This movement possesses a horizontal structure of interlinked virtual and "real world" social networks, some close to a particular ideological current but most less driven by ideology than by a shared sense of outrage and desire for reform.
And this has linked the 20-something "shebab" (youth) with activists of the " '70s generation," whose roots are in the Arab nationalist and Islamist movements that dominated politics in the region after the end of colonial rule. Many of these older activists became disillusioned with Egypt's established political parties and movements, which they viewed as ideologically rigid and autocratic, and eventually broke from them to form new groups.
Over the past 20 or so years, it is this "middle generation" -- situated between the old-guard politicians of the formal opposition groups, and the largely politically unaffiliated youth -- that first articulated a national agenda of constitutional and political reform, and led the pro-democracy "Kefaya" (Enough) movement in 2005.
The two generations have complementary strengths. By using the momentum created by the Tunisian uprising and the new media to coordinate protests, the youth started the ball rolling and ultimately managed to "wake the sleeping giant" -- that is, to get tens of thousands of ordinary Egyptians to take a public stand against the regime.
Yet in any transition to a new system, such youth will inevitably rely on the skill, experience and vision of the older generation of democracy activists, now graying at the temples, who were the first to prioritize human rights and freedom.
Where does the Muslim Brotherhood fit into all this?
The Brotherhood is a large umbrella organization that encompasses different views and trends. While the group poses no immediate danger to the reform process, it remains a wild card, because its willingness to participate on equal terms with the country's much smaller secular parties in the formation of a new democratic order is unclear.
Stunted by decades of repression, the country's legal opposition parties are small groups fractured by internal rivalries, with almost no popular support. The Muslim Brotherhood, though technically illegal, does have a presence among the masses, but it is no longer the defiant anti-system movement it was in the past.
Having long ago renounced violence as a means to achieve its domestic agenda of Islamic change, the Muslim Brotherhood has sought to participate in the political system while avoiding bold moves that might spook the regime or critics at home and abroad. Indeed, the greater the group's political success, the greater has been its vulnerability to repression.
Under the control of aging conservative leaders, the Brotherhood has adopted a stance of caution and pragmatic self-restraint in the face of the overwhelming power of a regime, which treats it as an existential threat. Paradoxically, the Brotherhood's very size and popularity have prevented it from flexing its political muscles, and launching a direct confrontation with the regime.
As in the democracy protests of 2004-2005, the Brotherhood was a latecomer to the recent protests, only mobilizing its supporters into the streets on Friday, a few days after the demonstrations broke out, when it was clear that they would form part of a broader movement for reform.
The key question going forward of course is whether the Brotherhood will continue to exercise self-restraint if and when the Mubarak regime falls. My sense is that it will, for three reasons.
First, seizing power for itself is not the Brotherhood's primary objective. What it wants is the opportunity to spread its message and influence policy, not call the shots by itself.
Second, the prominent role of secular political figures, and a large sector of politicized but ideologically unaffiliated youth, in the reform movement, will limit the Brotherhood's ability to monopolize power even if it wanted to do so.
Finally, the Brotherhood is keenly aware that neither the Egyptian military -- the ultimate arbiter of power in the country, or the West, would be likely to welcome a Brotherhood-dominated government.
It is not clear whether the Brotherhood will be willing to compromise on its demand for sharia rule. At the same time, given the depth of its popular support and more than 30-year record of responsible behavior, it has earned a place at the table, and no transition to a democratic process can occur without it.
The people on the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt this past week are not united under any ideological banner. Their anger and frustration reflect the daily struggles and hardships of ordinary Egyptians facing high unemployment, rising food prices, police brutality and governmental corruption and neglect.
Above all, what the protesters want is to reclaim the dignity they feel they've lost during the 30 years of Mubarak's rule.
But while inchoate demands for dignity and freedom may be enough to unseat a regime, the establishment of a new system based on the principles of democracy will require a tremendous amount of deliberation, cooperation and compromise among the country's leading opposition actors.
Fortunately, over the past few decades, working outside the formal party system and under the radar of the authoritarian state, middle-generation activists from across the ideological spectrum have been in contact with each other, working to draft a new constitution and hammer out a cross-partisan consensus on the rules of the game.
If a real opening occurs, this history of cooperation will help pave the way to a new democratic order. An encouraging sign is the emergence of a united opposition front under the leadership of Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel laureate.
It is the courage and determination of the youth camping out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and thousands of others like them, that has sparked and sustained Egypt's popular uprising.
But if and when Mubarak steps down, a peaceful and orderly transition to a democratic system will rely on the political skill, experience and judgment of older democracy activists. Marginalized for decades, as much by the aging leadership of established opposition parties and movements as by the regime, such older leaders are ready for their moment, which it appears, has finally arrived.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carrie Rosefsky Wickham.