CAIRO (AP) — A longtime Egyptian diplomat and former presidential candidate said Tuesday that the Muslim Brotherhood must drop its demand for the country's toppled president to return to power to avoid further bloodshed.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Amr Moussa said it was up to the Islamist group to decide whether it wants to be part of the country's future.

His comments mirror the increasingly hardened stance of Egypt's military-backed government toward the weekslong sit-ins by supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood member.

Moussa warned the group not to "act foolishly and show carelessness about bloodshed" through sticking to "untenable" demands about reinstating Morsi and restoring the country's Islamist-drafted constitution.

"It is in their hands," Moussa told the AP. "If they act intelligently at this stage, they will certainly move into the future."

At one point, it appeared that Moussa himself might become Egypt's president. He served as foreign minister under deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak and later was head of the Arab League. His plain-spoken style and support of Palestinians won him widespread support among Egyptians — and a refrain of "I Love Amr Moussa" in the popular pop song "I Hate Israel" by singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim.

Polling numbers before the 2012 election suggested Moussa could sweep into power as posters proclaimed him the "Knight of Egypt." But his time in the Mubarak era marked him for some as a "feloul," or a remnant of the old regime.

He ended up splitting the vote with other secular and liberal candidates, ultimately setting up Morsi to become Egypt's first democratically elected president.

Many in Egypt — including Moussa — turned against Morsi as the Islamist leader's government quickly moved to consolidate power and pushed through an Islamist-drafted constitution in his first year in power. Millions took to the streets to protest against Morsi and on July 3, a coup led by military leader Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi deposed Morsi.

Since then, more than 250 people have been killed in unrest stemming from the coup, including at least 130 people killed in two major clashes between security forces and Morsi's supporters. Anger continues to rise as the protests go on, Moussa said, suggesting that the demonstrations are provoking violence.

Moussa said he hadn't spoken directly to the Muslim Brotherhood, but did meet with William Burns, the U.S.' No. 2 diplomat, and other foreign officials after the coup.

While insisting that "democracy is the solution," Moussa said the coup was the only way to remove an increasingly overreaching Morsi from power.

"We are an old people as you know, we have been here for thousands of years and we know governance takes time, regardless of whoever will come," he said. "But we have to look forward, not backward."

What that future holds, however, remains unclear. A military-backed timetable for Egypt calls for the country's constitution to be amended and for presidential and parliamentary elections to be held in 2014.

Since Morsi's ouster, posters and signs bearing the image of el-Sissi have appeared throughout Egypt, raising questions about whether he could cross into the country's political scene.

Moussa said el-Sissi represented "a symbol of a strong stand in a time of a lack of leadership," but that he was satisfied with the general remaining in the military. He also acknowledged the danger that blind nationalism can pose to Egypt.

"That's why we have to run the elections very quickly ... and settle this question once and for all — for the next four years," he said.

Moussa said he had no plans to contest when asked about the expected elections next year. The 76-year-old former diplomat, who grew up when the country still had a king, likely lost his final chance to govern in the 2012 election. Voters then questioned whether his age should preclude him from running Egypt.

"I would support any younger-generation guy that can convince me that yes, he's the one who could do it," Moussa said. "Let us pave the way for a younger one."

Asked if he knew specifically of a younger politician worth keeping an eye on, Moussa chuckled and referred to Egypt's huge population.

"We are 90 million. We are going to be 100 million in a few years," he said. "There are a lot of people who could do the job."

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Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP .