THE overwhelming sense among politicians and intellectuals in the Middle East last week was that America's little chemistry experiment had blown up in its face. President Bush promoted democracy and free elections as his primary solution to the region's ills — and when Hamas won in a landslide in the Palestinian elections, the president got results that could not have been more inimical to the interests of the United States and its ally, Israel.
Like a powerful catalyst best handled with an eyedropper rather than a ladle, free and fair elections have recently unleashed political forces elsewhere in the region that can hardly be seen as friendly to the United States. The radical Muslim Brotherhood made major gains in Egypt's parliamentary elections, a Shiite clerical list allied with Iran won a plurality in Iraq and Hezbollah — considered, like Hamas, a terrorist organization by the West — surged in last year's elections in Lebanon.
From one point of view, one that produces more than a few chortles in the Middle East, the United States has fallen victim to some grand law of unintended consequences. "You might remember the saying, 'Beware of what you wish — you might get what you want,' " said Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, well aware that he was tossing a Western saying back in the direction it came. "It's very much applicable," he said.
But the wider question, Mr. Aly acknowledged, is whether the long-term benefits of democracy are worth the immediate perils. Can it be fine-tuned so it fits each of the volatile and diverse countries of the Middle East? And can a shot of democracy, however jolting at first, be trusted in the end to seduce and tame the forces it has set loose?
Right after the Palestinian elections, Mr. Bush praised the "power of democracy" but did not seem to fully accept the outcome in that case, saying that the United States would not deal with a political party that advocates the destruction of Israel, as Hamas does.
The president did not specifically rule out talking to a government of which Hamas is a part. Still, he did not sound entirely pleased that he had gotten what he wished for. And if democracy continues to produce results that are irksome to the United States, will other Americans call into question the export of their most glorious product, electoral democracy?
"In the short term, there may be people who think that pushing democracy is contrary to our interests," said Robert Pastor, a former American diplomat who is the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University in Washington.
But the choice of tamping down democratic movements once they get started does not really exist, said Mr. Pastor, who negotiated with Hamas to avoid violence during the first Palestinian elections in 1996. The United States would hardly be in the business of stopping a cycle of elections once they start. And the experience of Latin America shows that selectively trying to purge electoral slates of radical groups merely pushes them to carry out violent revolutions.
That is also essentially what happened when military-backed rulers in Algeria canceled parliamentary elections in 1992 after they were swept by the Islamic Salvation Front, an organization determined to govern by Islamic law. Tens of thousands of people died in the conflicts that followed. "If Hamas had been excluded" from the recent elections, Mr. Pastor said, "they would have said that they have no other alternative to violence. And they would be right."
If the catalytic reaction set in motion by elections cannot be stopped once it starts, then a better solution may be to promote democracy in a way that is tailored to the most dangerous realities of each country. Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, divides countries into three categories that highlight what can most readily go wrong for Western interests when democracy is thrown into the mix in the Middle East and the wider Arab world.
In one set of countries, including Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, a ruling authoritarian regime is considered ineffectual or corrupt and Islamic opposition parties would probably sweep any wide-open elections as good-government candidates.
In a second set, which includes Iraq and Lebanon, the underlying peril is an ethnically and religiously splintered populace, held together only by an autocrat's heavy hand, in which the differences threaten to tear the countries apart. Here, rival religious groups often have their own parties and militias.
Open elections in a third group — pro-Western monarchies like Jordan, Kuwait or Bahrain — would probably overturn the existing semi-feudal social order in favor of Islamic rule, Ms. Ottaway said. In these cases, Islam's appeal is based on a claim that it creates a just social order.
The ascendancy throughout the region of political Islam is, therefore, the first problem that the United States must solve as it pushes democratic reform.
"I don't think the United States is prepared to deal with the issue of these Islamist parties," Ms. Ottaway said.
Nevertheless, the problem is not as fraught as Americans often make it out to be, she said. The appeal of the Islamist parties is often simply that they are well organized, untainted by the corruption of an entrenched regime, and able to provide things like child care and funeral services to local neighborhoods. Several political experts said that disgust with the inefficient government run by Fatah, the former ruling party in Palestine, and its reputation for corruption, played a much greater role in the Hamas landslide than attitudes about Israel.
"The most important and urgent lesson" of the Hamas victory, said Khalil Shikaki, a respected Palestinian pollster, "is that if you do not want these groups to take over in the process of democratization, you have to press the existing regimes to reform their systems."
Even if the radical groups win, there is some hope that the daily pressures of making the country work will wear down the firebrands of the world in a way that looks a lot like moderation, said Feisal Amin al-Istrabadi, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations. Until now, "they've been able to criticize the governments without actually delivering anything but criticism," Mr. Istrabadi said. "Now they have to govern. Pave roads. Make sure the garbage is picked up on time."
Mr. Aly, of the Al-Ahram center, said that in the early going, at least, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who now hold 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, have behaved amicably. Some experts, like Amatzia Baram, an Israeli who is a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa in Israel, think that Hamas is more likely to maintain a confrontational stance.
In the worst case, that stance could spark a regional war, Mr. Baram said. But even he believes that if the new government does not provide basic services more efficiently than Fatah did, the electorate will give Hamas the boot too.
As for the countries like Lebanon and Iraq that are plagued with sectarian and religious divides, Mr. Baram is another believer that carefully designed forms of democracy will be able to work there. In Lebanon, each group, from the Maronites to the Shiites, is allocated a fixed number of seats, district by district, to prevent sudden shifts in power that could provoke a return to civil war.
"It has to be approached on a country-by-country solution," Mr. Baram said. He said that in Iraq, where the voting produced a Shiite plurality but forced the main clerical party to seek partners in its government, the arrangement could in the long run produce a stable country much like Lebanon appears to have become. Others see in Iraq the potential for a civil war — in the style of what Lebanon went through just 20 years ago — that creates separate Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions and generates spinoff conflicts in the entire region.
Many political commentators in the Middle East, including Rami Khouri, a syndicated columnist and editor at large at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, say that Mr. Bush's seemingly contradictory statements show that he is not really serious about pushing democracy. Instead, Mr. Khouri believes, talk of democracy is a cover for an invasion of Iraq that happened for other reasons.
"It rings very hollow around the world," Mr. Khouri said. "Most people laugh."
However it has all happened, said Ziad Abu Amr, an independent candidate supported by Hamas who won re-election last week, there is no backing out once the ballots are cast.
"It's not good to say democracy is fine and elections are fine but we can't live with the outcome," Mr. Amr said. "I don't think the United States should make too many conditions on countries which choose to embrace democracy."