"They can't lose."
Expect the unexpected. In the immediate aftermath of Mubarak's ouster, many Egypt analysts took the Brotherhood at its word when it promised not to run for a majority of Egypt's first post-revolutionary Parliament, and many predicted that the Brotherhood would only win 20 to 30 percent of the seats. The Brotherhood's impressive succession of electoral victories and quick assumption of executive authority, however, has led to the rise of a new conventional wisdom: When it comes to the ballot box, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot lose.
Yet the lesson of the Arab Spring is that what appears to be stable at one moment can be toppled at another -- especially if people are frustrated enough with the status quo. The conditions that sparked Egypt's 2011 uprising have only worsened in the past two years: The country's declining economy has intensified popular frustrations, and the constant labor strikes and street-closing protests indicate that the Brotherhood's rule is far less stable than it might appear on the surface. Meanwhile, Morsy's dictatorial maneuvers have forced an anti-Brotherhood opposition to form much more quickly than previously imagined.
Most importantly, a close look at voting data suggests non-Islamists are making critical gains among the Egyptian public. 57 percent of Egyptians voted for non-Islamist candidates during the first round of the 2012 presidential elections, and non-Islamist candidate Ahmed Shafiq won more than 48 percent in the second round -- despite being very unattractive to many Egyptians for having served as Mubarak's last prime minister. Moreover, though the Brotherhood successfully campaigned for the December constitutional referendum and won nearly 64 percent of the vote, turnout was only 33 percent -- meaning that the movement was only able to mobilize, at most, about 21 percent of the voting public.
To be sure, the Brotherhood is exceedingly likely to win the forthcoming parliamentary elections, and it may rule Egypt for some time. It is, after all, uniquely well organized, while its opponents are deeply divided: To the Brotherhood's theocratic right, the Salafists are split among a handful of competing organizations and, to its left, the field is even more fragmented among communists, socialists, Nasserists, old ruling party members, and a smattering of liberals. Perhaps most dangerously, the Brotherhood's quick ascent has empowered it to shape Egypt's new political institutions, and it will likely tailor these institutions to perpetuate its reign.
But the Brotherhood's support isn't strong enough to preclude the emergence of a challenger. For that reason, the United States must ensure that it avoids the impression that it is putting all of its eggs in the Brotherhood's basket. Already, non-Islamists are asking why the United States has been loath to squeeze a new ruling party that is neither democratic nor, in the long run, likely to cooperate in promoting U.S. interests. Whether or not these non-Islamists can effectively challenge the Brotherhood right now -- and I am dubious -- they are right in challenging the Washington conventional wisdom that fails to see the Brotherhood for what it is: a deeply undemocratic movement concerned above all else with enhancing and perpetuating its own power.
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