President Mohamed Morsi's recent sacking of the military's top brass, including former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and de facto interim president of Egypt Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has drawn both praise and condemnation from the country's fractured revolutionary and pro-democracy forces. While some welcomed the move as a necessary step toward genuinely democratic civilian rule, others saw it as a naked power grab and a precursor to a new form of tyranny.
Whatever one thinks of Morsi's move, it has renewed concerns over the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, effectively the country's new ruling party in post-revolutionary Egypt. Indeed, many Egyptians are beginning to wonder whether they haven't simply traded in one single-party dictatorship for another.
Similarities between the Muslim Brotherhood and the now-defunct ruling party of Hosni Mubarak, the National Democratic Party (NDP), are difficult to ignore. Like its former nemesis, the Brotherhood’s political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) represents the most formidable force on the Egyptian political scene today, with an unrivalled political machine backed by substantial business interests and extensive patronage networks at all levels of Egyptian society.
And like the NDP, the Brotherhood/FJP has sought to consolidate its primacy through an accommodation with the military, which despite the recent house-cleaning still wields considerable economic and political power. The sacking of Tantawi et al, which probably could not have occurred without the backing of other senior officers, has reconfigured the power balance between the Brotherhood and the military, but does not amount to a subordination of the military to civilian rule.
Even more worrying is the Brotherhood’s long history of unilateralism, as well as its own hegemonic tendencies, including its attempts to dominate both the parliament and the constituent assembly (before both were dissolved by court order). Most recently, the wave of media censorship and attacks on free speech directed at voices critical of or hostile to the Brotherhood are eerily reminiscent of the Mubarak era.
The Brotherhood and its supporters dismiss such comparisons as patently unfair – and with some justification. Unlike Mubarak's NDP, whose political domination was built on vote-rigging, intimidation and other forms of institutional thuggery, the Brotherhood's enormous electoral success, whether in recent presidential elections or last winter's parliamentary races, was earned fairly in competitive elections.
Similarly, after just a few months in power, the Brotherhood has nothing like the kind of institutional control over the bureaucracy and state institutions, many of which are semi-autonomous and remain deeply distrustful of the Brotherhood, that was accrued by the NDP over the past several decades.
Such differences are by no means trivial. The introduction of electoral democracy in particular marked a clear and dramatic break with the past, and one that many believe will militate against the emergence of a new dictatorship. After all, as in any democracy, should Morsi and/or the Brotherhood fail to deliver on their promises, Egyptian voters will have an opportunity to "throw the bums out."
Indeed, given Morsi's and the Brotherhood's rather ambitious campaign promises – which include everything from improving Cairo’s notoriously gnarled traffic, to reviving the country's ailing economy, to reforming Egypt’s abusive and incompetent security sector – failure would seem all but guaranteed. This assumes, however, that the political game is taking place on a level playing field, which is certainly not the case in Egypt.
In reality, failure at the governance level does not necessarily mean imminent defeat at the polls. The Brotherhood has already won five of five electoral contests since Mubarak’s ouster. And given its superior organisation and resources, as well as the various levels of disarray and dysfunction of most non-Islamist parties, future parliamentary elections are likely to return similar results.
While we would expect the political fortunes of any group to rise and fall with the ebb and flow of realities on the ground, certain conditions could make the Brotherhood's electoral supremacy much more impervious to change.
Theoretically at least, it is possible for the Brotherhood to fail and still succeed. The most obvious challenge comes from the Brotherhood's preeminent role in drafting Egypt's next constitution, allowing it to write its political dominance directly into the script.
That role was recently enhanced by Morsi's own unilateral 'constitutional declaration' granting himself the power to name a new constituent assembly in the event the current one fails. But there are other, more subtle ways by which the group can institutionalise its dominant position.
As is well known, the Muslim Brotherhood is far more than just a political actor, or even a source of patronage. And despite the FJP's declared independence, decision-making within the 'party' continues to flow directly and organically from the 'association.'
This effectively places the Brotherhood's vast social, charitable and educational operations at the service of its political wing. Add to this the inherent lack of transparency and accountability associated with a highly secretive and, as yet, unlicensed organisation whose internal workings and finances remain beyond public scrutiny and a more problematic picture begins to emerge.
The potential manipulative impact of such a machine goes far beyond mere patronage, particularly when combined with another highly potent force – religion. The ability to claim religious legitimacy gives the Brotherhood an aura of moral superiority, if not infallibility, over its non-Islamist (or 'un-Islamic') political rivals, which could be used to stifle legitimate political dissent.
Recent threats by pro-Brotherhood clerics against anti-Morsy voices, some of whom attempted to make opposition to the president tantamount to apostasy, may not have been sanctioned by the Brotherhood, but could easily become a more pervasive (and acceptable) phenomenon down the road. Ironically, even the Brotherhood's electoral legitimacy could be used to justify anti-democratic behaviour, signs of which are evident in Morsy’s somewhat SCAF-esque constitutional declaration granting himself sweeping executive and legislative powers.
Thus, while the Brotherhood may lack the institutional powers of the old NDP, it enjoys several other significant advantages over the former ruling party, which could ultimately prove more resilient. With the exception of the military, whose interests do not lie primarily in ensuring the emergence of a democratic political order, there remain few checks on Morsi's (and by extension the Brotherhood's) authority. Equally worrisome, there has yet to emerge a viable and cohesive political force capable of challenging the Brotherhood's dominance.
This does not mean, however, that the Brotherhood has replicated the tyrannical order that existed under Mubarak, or even that it necessarily will – only that it has the potential to do so with very little standing in the way. So, has the Muslim Brotherhood become the new NDP? The answer is no – or at least not yet. Until such checks are put in place, however, it is prudent for Egyptians to keep asking the question.
Khaled Elgindy is a Fellow with the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He is a founding board member of the Egyptian-American Rule of Law Association (EARLA), established in the spring of 2011. He previously served as an advisor to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel (2004 –2009).