The 2006 elections really are a cautionary tale, though not in the way critics of the past or current Administration usually suppose. Whatever else might be said about those elections, they did not create Hamas, which is an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and which had been gaining political strength among Palestinians for nearly two decades. Hamas's popularity owed much to its militant hostility to Israel. But it was also admired for its opposition to Yasser Arafat's corrupt, incompetent and frequently brutal Fatah party.
So it was with good reason that President Bush sought to promote liberal-democratic openings throughout the Arab world. For the Palestinians, that meant replacing the old land-for-peace formula with a democracy-for-statehood concept, in which the U.S. would recognize a Palestinian state only if it met certain political criteria.
"I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," Mr. Bush said in a June 2002 speech. "I call upon them to build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty. . . . True reform will require entirely new political and economic institutions, based on democracy, market economics and action against terrorism."
That was a viable formula and it yielded some real results, not the least of which was that the relatively moderate Mahmoud Abbas was named prime minister and later elected president in a race boycotted by Hamas. And so it might have continued had Hamas not decided to contest the next elections, with the acquiescence of both Mr. Abbas's Palestinian Authority and Condoleezza Rice's State Department.
Such acquiescence should never have been granted: Hamas operates its own armed militia and it categorically rejects the 1993 Oslo Accords that are the entire basis of the government for which elections were being held. Yet Ms. Rice demanded that Israel accede to Hamas's participation in the vote, on the theory that "we have to give the Palestinians some room for the evolution of their political process." Her State Department also argued that disarming Hamas was a long-term goal, not a precondition to their political participation.
All this contradicted the vision President Bush had laid out nearly four years earlier, and it's no credit to his leadership that he allowed his Secretary of State to so mismanage the process. Ms. Rice is widely reported to have been taken utterly by surprise by the election results, and that in turn is no credit to U.S. diplomats who should have seen it coming.
But the basic error wasn't about polling. It was to insist on an election before the proper groundwork had been prepared. And it was to allow an armed Hamas to participate in a political process whose very legitimacy Hamas rejects. Anti-democratic parties cannot be a part of a democratic system, a lesson the world might have learned as far back as 1933.
It's also a lesson the world should bear in mind as events unfold in Egypt. Those who believe that a democratic Egypt is doomed to fall into the Muslim Brotherhood's hands frequently cite the 2006 elections as Exhibit A. But the lesson of those elections is that Hamas should not have been allowed to participate, not that elections should never have been held.
If the Brotherhood wants to participate in elections, it should have to promise to play by democratic rules, respect religious and social pluralism, and honor Egypt's treaty commitments, especially to Israel. And because promises can be broken by those in power, Egypt needs a constitutional system of checks and balances to withstand any attempt to impose one man, one vote, once. Egypt can have a viable democratic future, provided that the democracy is for democrats.