Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square Friday to hear the words of one the Islamic world's most popular and controversial theologians.
Ending his three-decade exile, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the "spiritual leader" of the Muslim Brother, called on Egyptians to preserve national unity as they press forward in reforming the country's government. “Don’t let anyone steal this revolution from you – those hypocrites who will put on a new face that suits them,” he said. “The revolution isn’t over. It has just started to build Egypt … guard your revolution.”
Qaradawi's words serve as a warning for the national military not to drag its feet in handing over the governing powers it seized after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down exactly one week ago.
“The real message here was, 'Don’t mess with us Egyptians,'" Shadi Hamid, a research director at the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center in Qatar who joined the crowd told the Christian Science Monitor. “It’s a clear message to the military, warning them that people are still willing to come out in massive numbers and it’s going to continue indefinitely if needed.”
"In this square, sectarianism died," Qaradawi told the crowd, praising Egypt's Coptic Christians for standing with Muslims in protest. “The regime planted sectarianism here … in Tahrir, Muslims and Christians joined hands for a better Egypt," he said.
The opposition movement has unveiled a list of 35 demands for the next step of the revolution. “Egyptian people are like the genie who came out of the lamp and who have been in prison for 30 years,” says Hoda Youssry, adding that only one of their demands – Mubarak's ouster – has been met so far. “We are not going back in until all our demands are met.”
In the meantime, Qaradawi made some demands of his own. He called for the immediate release of the thousands of political prisoners who remain in Egyptian jails, an end to state police forces, the dissolution of the cabinet of Mubarak loyalists and an end to the economic blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Qaradawi's appearance also reminded the devout crowd of the importance of their Islamic faith's role in the nation's political life.
“Qaradawi is very much in the mainstream of Egyptian society, he’s in the religious mainstream, he’s not offering something that’s particularly distinctive or radical in the context of Egypt,” says Mr. Hamid. “He’s an Islamist and he’s part of the Brotherhood school of thought, but his appeal goes beyond the Islamist spectrum, and in that sense he’s not just an Islamist figure, he’s an Egyptian figure with a national profile.”
But it's these attributes that have some fearing Qaradawi's return to Egyptian politics.
After his speech, Qaradawi read from the Quran, specifically drawing attention to a verse on the fate of tyrants.
“No to Hosni, no to his regime, no to his supporters!” the crowd cheered.
Notably absent from the stage during Friday's rally was Google's Wael Ghonim, who had emerged as a leading voice in the revolution after administering a Facebook page that helped spark Egypt's uprising.
According to Agence-France, Ghonim was actually barred from the stage, blocked by men who appeared to be guarding Qaradawi.
"Ghonim, who was angered by the episode, then left the square with his face hidden by an Egyptian flag," the report added.
With Qaradawi's reemergence on the country's political stage, what role might the Muslim Brotherhood play in the new government?
Though senior military leaders are reportedly skeptical of political Islam, there have been some signs that the military council now governing Egypt has reached out the Brotherhood. One official, the appointed head of a constitutional reform committee, is said to be "ideologically simpatico" with the controversial organization.
The Brotherhood has also hinted it's planning to form its own political party, a move that has been banned for years under Mubarak's rule.