If the reports now out of a clear Hamas victory in the Parliamentary elections, with upwards of 70 seats on participation of over 70%, turn out to be accurate, then we are now facing the single most important test - possibly ever - of America's commitment to democracy in the Middle East. (Update: al-Jazeera is reporting that the Palestinian government has resigned, Fatah has refused to take part in a proposed national unity government, and President Mahmoud Abbas has asked Hamas to form a government.)
It is an article of faith among virtually all Arabs and Muslims that in 1992 the United States and Europe green lighted the Algerian military coup after the Islamist FIS stood on the brink of electoral victory. This has been taken for a decade and a half as the definitive evidence that the American and European commitment to democracy was a hypocritical farce: democracy only if our allies won.
The Bush administration has talked a lot about democracy, about past mistakes in American policy towards democracy in the region, and so forth, but I think it's fair to say that most Arabs remain deeply suspicious. Recent Arab elections haven't really tested whether this has changed. Iraq under American military occupation is sui generis. In Egypt there was never any chance that the Muslim Brotherhood would be allowed to actually win, and even if it somehow had Mubarak would have remained in control over a relatively impotent Parliament. Jordan's Parliamentary elections have been sufficiently gerrymandered (via electoral law) to ensure a strict ceiling on Islamist seats. Sudanese Islamists arrived on the back of a military coup.
Hamas winning and presumably moving to form a government is the first real instance of an Islamist movement on the brink of winning power democratically since 1992. If they take power, we are going to see some major political science propositions put to the test: does power moderate or radicalize Islamist groups? Will they be willing and able to work with non-Islamist parties in a coalition? Will they use their democratic victory to abolish democracy? Will Islamist groups concentrate on the pragmatics of rule or resort to foreign policy grandstanding? Will they use their position of power to pursue terrorism? Will they be willing to set aside doctrine and work pragmatically with Israelis and Americans? Will they use government power to impose unpopular sharia rule over their people? Will they oppress Christian and non-Islamist Muslims? Most academic and policy analysis of these questions has remained counterfactual and hypothetical, since there have been no actual examples of an elected Islamist group in power. That could now change.
Its really hard to know at this point, given sketchy information and all that (note to self: never, ever pay attention to exit polls anywhere ever again), but based on years of opinion polling it seems fairly likely that the Palestinians vote for Hamas was less about endorsing an Islamist state or violence against Israel than about rejecting the corruption and incompetence of the Fatah Palestinian Authority. Sweeping away the Fatah old guard would in and of itself be a service to everyone, especially Palestinians but also everyone who wants to see the rise of a competent Palestinian state. And Hamas would have to decide very quickly what to do about American aid and about dealing with Israel (both peace talks and just running daily administration) - with a strong practical incentive to deal with both pragmatically. I doubt that Hamas itself knows exactly what it will do; there will be a lot of internal debates and arguments, and signals from the outside (Israel and the US) will be closely monitored.
For America, I think it's extremely important right now to handle this right: honor the will of the people, demonstrate a commitment to democratic process, and see what happens. Give Hamas the chance to prove its intentions. Don't get too upset about the inevitable bursts of objectionable rhetoric by excited victors - test deeds, not early words. Above alll, don't give the Islamist hardliners the winning argument they crave about American hypocrisy. Refusing to deal with Hamas right now could effectively kill American attempts to promote democracy in the Middle East for a generation.
And get it right from the start - initial impressions of the American response will be extremely important. Never mind what was said a few days ago, either by Israel or the US - that can be dismissed as pre-election gamesmanship, trying to help Fatah win. That's history. Here's where public diplomacy as an integral part of the policy process has to matter. If Karen Hughes isn't sitting around the table when the Bush administration formulates its response to the Hamas victory, forcing policy makers to think about how their statements will impact Arab and Muslim public opinion, she might as well resign right now.