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How should the world engage with this political player?
That was evident in the square on Thursday, Feb. 10, when Abbas was on the stage in the center of Tahrir Square leading a crowd of hundreds of thousands. Mubarak was supposed to step down, but when it became apparent that he would try to cling to power, Abbas took the microphone. In a thunderous speech to the crowd, he called on them to stay in the streets. And understanding that the military will play a critical role in the weeks and months ahead as Egypt rewrites its history, Abbas appealed to the crowd on that issue.
“The army has to choose between the regime and the Egyptian people,” he shouted through a microphone and a tower of speakers that had been set up by the Brotherhood.
“The army; the people; hand in hand. The army; the people; hand in hand,” he chanted as the crowd joined in.
It was a powerful moment and within 24 hours Mubarak would be overthrown. In that moment, it was clear that Abbas and the other young leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood understood the core issue, which is how the military will deal with civilian rule.
And it set the stage for Abbas and others to be part of defining the future of Egypt. The day after Mubarak was toppled, Abbas along with a half dozen other members of the Revolutionary Youth Council was invited to meet with top brass in the military.
Shadi Hamid, a director of research at the center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, is an Egyptian American who came to Cairo to see the revolution firsthand. We talked in the elegant environs of the Cairo Marriott on the banks of the Nile, and he said the Egyptian military and the U.S. government were both wary of the Brotherhood.
But he said they would have to get over it and recognize that they are a powerful new force, and by far the most organized opposition group.
“I think the U.S. doesn’t have a choice anymore. I think the U.S. has to learn to live with political Islam,” said Hamid.
“The Brotherhood is likely going to play an influential role in the coming years. If Egypt becomes democratic, the largest opposition force in the country is going to be part of that, of that new political scene. So the U.S. has to find a way to be okay with that, and to start engaging with the Brotherhood.”
He added, “I think now is the time to do that because the U.S. has leverage with the Brotherhood now. After the Brotherhood comes to power, it might be too late at that point. And if the U.S. wants to make clear, for example, what some of the red lines are.”
“For example, the peace treaty with Israel,” he said, referring to the 1978 Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt which the Brotherhood has said it would recognize but which it would want to put to a popular vote.
“It’s time to have that conversation with Brotherhood leaders, sooner rather than later,” said Hamid, adding, “America just has to accept that much has changed and that the revolution in Egypt is part of a whole new political landscape in the Middle East.”