The surprise showing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s national elections highlights the dilemma faced by democracy advocates in the West. The strong support for fundamentalist Islamic groups throughout the region directly challenges the assumption that free and open elections will lead to governments that share the views of their supporters abroad.

At the same time, suppressing those groups intensifies pressures within Middle Eastern societies. There must be some outlet for popular opinion or these societies risk upheaval.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has long been a favorite in the West. His readiness to engage Israel and to be a force for moderation has established him as a leading voice within the region. It has also qualified him for billions of dollars in financial support from the United States each year. But as the recipient of U.S. money and as a regional power, Mr. Mubarak is also expected to lead by example. Thus he has come under considerable pressure from democracy advocates to open up his country’s political system and allow for more democracy.

Mr. Mubarak has been reluctant to take that process too far for fear that the majority of Egyptians would not endorse the broadly secular position of his government, but instead take a more fundamentalist outlook. Recent elections prove the point.

For the past month, Egypt has been holding parliamentary elections. The results show the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic fundamentalist group, has won at least 88 seats in the new 444-member Parliament, up from only 15 before. This strong showing is especially worrisome as the party is officially banned (members run as “independents”). Although the Brotherhood fielded less than half the maximum number of candidates to avoid too strong a showing, the government increasingly harassed supporters as the group’s strength became apparent.

While Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party still controls an overwhelming majority in Parliament, it is plain that the Brotherhood is the most important opposition force in Egypt. In the Byzantine world of Middle Eastern politics, some see a motive behind Mr. Mubarak’s policy: Prior to the election, the government reportedly cracked down on liberal activists to the extent that only fundamentalists remained to seriously mount a challenge the government. Conspiracy theorists suggest that this polarization of Egyptian politics strengthens Mr. Mubarak’s hand when he argues against those who demand yet more liberalization.

This theory cannot be proven, but it is a fact that, by the end of the monthlong vote, at least 10 people had been killed in election-related violence. Predictably, the government has blamed the Brotherhood, which in turn says government forces are responsible. Outside observers from the U.S. have said the behavior of security forces raises concerns about Egypt’s “commitment to democracy and freedom.”

Egypt is not the only regional government that faces a dilemma. Algeria muzzled its Islamic opposition more than a decade ago by nullifying elections that the Islamic forces had won. Jordan, another key voice of moderation and ally of the West, continues to manage its democracy in ways that minimize the influence of Islamic groups.

In the occupied territories, President Mahmoud Abbas is being seriously challenged by the Islamic rejectionist group Hamas and a younger equally militant group within his own Fatah ruling party. The Fatah faction is led by Mr. Marwan Barghouti, who won 90 percent of the vote despite being — or perhaps because he was — in an Israeli jail.

Perhaps the most critical test for democracy advocates in the region is the Iraqi parliamentary election, to be held Thursday. The world would like to see a tolerant, secular government installed in Baghdad. Although there is debate about the role of Islam in the new Iraq, it appears unlikely that a fundamentalist government will take power.

Nevertheless, a majority of Iraqis are Shiites who have no desire to share power with the Sunni minority given the abuses they suffered when Sunnis ruled Baghdad. Yet a failure to institutionalize some form of power-sharing will virtually guarantee civil war. Demands for democracy in themselves do not seem to resolve this seemingly intractable dilemma.

None of this means that democracy is unrealizable in the Middle East. Similar arguments were made about the compatibility of Asian cultures and democracy. The example shown by most countries in that region proves that the skeptics were wrong. But history also shows that democracy must be tailored to a country’s particular culture and history. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Ignoring this fact is to risk violence that has been seen in Egypt, or worse, as popular pressures mount.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.