04/13/2012 10:38 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Power Is a Double-edged Sword

It's been an interesting month in Egypt -- and many are ringing alarm bells about the apparent conversion of Egypt into a theocracy. But the reality may be different -- and we may be heralding the end of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a political force completely.

I'm writing elsewhere about the loss of credibility that recent political moves may deliver for the MB in different arenas -- within the MB itself, in Egypt and overseas. But that is not the most devastating challenge for the MB. We have to remember why this group has been so successful in the past year. The MB entered the political race with a small percentage of Egyptians expressing confidence in them -- according to Gallup polls carried out in March, just 15 percent. For months, those numbers scarcely changed, and then rose significantly in the weeks just prior to voting that took place in December.

That led to the MB taking the lion's share of seats in parliament -- but that did not mean that Egyptians suddenly became MB en masse. In Mubarak's Egypt, the MB had built up pretty much no political capital, because that was forbidden -- but it gained an incredible amount of social capital through various civil society initiatives. When forced to make a choice between a movement that had that social capital at least, and other movements that didn't have political or social capital, Egyptians chose to give the MB a chance.

Other polls make it clear that even when they did, their priorities didn't change or become more ideologically Islamist: their top priorities have consistently been about jobs, the economy and security. Considering that's what the MB's actual manifesto talked about, as opposed to utopian notions in terms of creating an ideal society, its not hard to see why they did well in elections.

As such, core support is small; probably no more than 15 percent, which is what it was in March. In December, when asked if they had confidence in the MB, Gallup polls reported that half of Egyptians said they did. That huge jump is not necessarily good news for the MB -- because it means that their mandate is extremely conditional on delivering. Egyptians did not vote for the MB to create some sort of utopia -- they voted for the MB to create jobs, fix the economy and restore security, and under the presumption they'd do it ethically and morally. [That's what happens when you use religion as a political tool -- people use that same religion to hold you to a higher standard than usual.]

The MB leadership may be now revelling in that the Egyptian people gave them the benefit of the doubt in thinking they could accomplish these mammoth tasks. But its hard to see anyone really being able to fulfill expectations that are so high -- be that the MB or anyone else. Moreover, the political shenanigans of the MB leadership are calling it into question -- why did they break a repeated pledge not to run an MB member as candidate by running its Deputy General Guide?

Many ask within Egypt right now: if a rethink was necessary, as the MB argues, then surely it would have been better for Egypt, as well as the MB, to simply back an existing presidential candidate whose roots are in Islamism, but is no longer an MB member: Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh. Just for the sake of argument, one can imagine what that would have done for politics in Egypt -- with the MB backing a candidate that had revolutionary credentials like Abul Fotouh, there could have been a restoration of the alliance between religious and non-religious forces for the revolution. It was not to be. Instead of truly building a consensus, ecumenical coalition to repair Egypt's fractures, the MB opted to go it alone, and seek power for itself.

But power is a double-edged sword -- and the more power the MB has, the more responsibility it has. The vote for the MB was a swing vote -- it could easily swing away from it, in crippling ways. The next few years will be an incredibly difficult time for Egypt -- and if (when) the MB fail to improve it dramatically (which is likely) they will be held accountable by the electorate.

If the MB wanted power, they've got it -- now they have to avoid being hung by it.

[Note to non-religious parties in Egypt -- I really hope you're paying attention.]