As Egypt's autocratic regime cracks open the door to real democracy, should it let in the Muslim Brotherhood - a popular social and political group that wants rule by Islamic law? The group demands it be made a legal political party. But to do so illustrates the risk in nudging Arab states toward democracy.
It's obvious by now that the democracy domino theory as applied to the Middle East is full of complexities. Encouraging fair and open elections, for instance, also opens the way for troubling Islamist organizations to push for participation - in parliamentary elections in Egypt this month, in Iraq next month, and in the Palestinian Territories in January.
In Egypt, the risk from the Muslim Brotherhood is that if it gained enough power, some fear it could do away with the secular state, as happened in Iran. Although the Brotherhood long ago renounced violence, defines itself as moderate, and says it respects the ballot box, it also supports the establishment of Islamic law, or sharia.
President Hosni Mubarak, a former general in power for 24 years, has tolerated the Brotherhood in recent years because of its considerable following. Brotherhood members hold a few seats as "independents" in the rubber-stamp parliament.
But Mr. Mubarak warns of their fundamentalist threat, and when Egypt gingerly opened up presidential elections to multiple candidates in September, it shut out the Brotherhood. In a second stage of parliamentary polling this past Sunday, after Brotherhood independents had made significant gains in the first stage, government-friendly thugs roughed up Brotherhood supporters, killing one. Hundreds of followers were also arrested. So far, Brotherhood independents have won 42 seats, compared to 15 before the phased polling began.
The legalization question is so ticklish that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has urged Mubarak to open up the political process, won't take a public position on it. She diplomatically says that's a decision for Egypt.
But as Secretary Rice herself rightly warns, the status quo in the Middle East is also a risk, and unlikely to hold. In an interview with the Fox News Editorial Board in September, she intimated that fears of the Muslim Brotherhood are overblown. Preserving the status quo, she argued, only provides fertile ground for extremists.
It may alarm Israel, for instance, that the militant group Hamas is running in Palestinian elections, but what if it's excluded from the political process? Precedents such as the Irish Republican Army show that a seat at the table of political decisionmaking can drastically reduce violence when basic democratic conditions are set.
As Mubarak considers the Muslim Brotherhood, he might remember that in a democracy, political parties can't survive without public support. In full daylight, the public may not judge the Brotherhood's Islamist views and autocratic ways so kindly.
The best way to insure against the rise of worrisome groups is for leaders such as Mubarak to deliver the clean government and effective policies that people want. Instead of worrying about the other guy so much, they ought to take a hard look at their own performance.