Welcome to the new reality of cold, hard choices in Egypt, and the consequences of democracy in regions where radicalism thrives.  In order to stay ahead of the crisis in Egypt, the Obama administration yesterday signaled that it supports the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics as long as they renounce violence and commit to democracy:

The Obama administration said for the first time that it supports a role for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned Islamist organization, in a reformed Egyptian government.

The organization must reject violence and recognize democratic goals if the U.S. is to be comfortable with it taking part in the government, the White House said. But by even setting conditions for the involvement of such nonsecular groups, the administration took a surprise step in the midst of the crisis that has enveloped Egypt for the last week. …

Monday’s statement was a “pretty clear sign that the U.S. isn’t going to advocate a narrow form of pluralism, but a broad one,” said Robert Malley, a Mideast peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. U.S. officials have previously pressed for broader participation in Egypt’s government.

The George W. Bush administration pushed Mubarak for democratic reforms, but a statement in 2005 by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not specifically address a role for Islamists.

“This is different,” said Malley, now with the International Crisis Group. “It has a real political edge and political meaning.”

If the name Robert Malley sounds familiar, it should.  Obama supposedly fired Malley as an adviser for Middle East affairs in April 2008 from his campaign (Malley later claimed he’d quit) after it came out that Malley had met with Hamas on several occasions, despite Hamas’ status as a terrorist group as indicated by the State Department.  Those meetings took place through the auspices of the International Crisis Group as well.   Malley also helped create J Street, designed as a counterbalance to AIPAC, which lobbies for Israel in Washington, and while a member of Clinton’s team was the only administration official to blame Israel for Yasser Arafat’s refusal to accept the Clinton peace plan.

Even so, this does nothing but acknowledge the obvious.  The Muslim Brotherhood has operated in Egypt since at least 1928 despite repeated and sustained attempts to stamp it out.  It’s a political minority, but an influential and significant movement that could end up playing kingmaker in an unruly shift into free elections in Egypt.  We have no real say in the narrowness or broadness of whatever pluralism emerges in Egypt — presuming, of course, that the army doesn’t seize control instead.  The best we can do is to try to get ahead of it and pressure Egyptians into renouncing violence in the interim, and hope the rest of Egypt holds them to their commitments.

Duncan Currie makes a good point about the inevitability of this moment, and at least a dim hope for a kind of reformation from it:

“I fully expect the Muslim Brotherhood to do well in any election,” Gerecht tells me. “They have a fairly substantial following.” He has no illusions about the group’s Islamist agenda, or about its virulent anti-Americanism, or about its hatred of Israel. In his view, calling for U.S. “engagement” with the Brotherhood is like calling for engagement with Ayatollah Khamenei. But Gerecht insists that allowing Brotherhood members to participate in a democratic process is the sine qua non of Egyptian political maturation. The country will never achieve real progress, he says, without first creating the political space necessary for a momentous debate over God and man. Indeed, Egypt’s secular liberals must defeat the Islamists in the public square, rather than through military repression. They must win the battle of ideas. …

If Egyptians voted the Brotherhood into a position of serious power, that would generate a kaleidoscope of problems for America and Israel (and Egypt). No serious analyst should pretend otherwise. But Gerecht’s logic is inescapable: You can’t have authentic Egyptian democracy while disenfranchising the country’s largest opposition movement. If you aren’t willing to countenance Brotherhood electoral participation, you shouldn’t be demanding representative government.

Our experience in Iraq should be somewhat instructive as well.  Most of the political parties in the transition formed along sectarian lines — Sunni and Shi’ite, with the Kurds more organized by ethnicity.  That has led to momentous struggles and a great deal of instability in the short term.  Over the long run, though, it at least appears that the groups have begun learning to deal with each other rationally in terms of secular governance rather than at the point of a gun or a sword, as they have done for centuries.  We were in much better position to manage that transition, but even absent our combat presence, the Iraqis appear to be working it out among themselves now.

Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the question is if the Ikhwan gets into “a position of serious power.”  They may be a minority, but a sudden shift to representative democracy will probably result in a multitude of political parties with varying degrees of attraction.  The Muslim Brotherhood will remain unified, and could very well be the most effective political party in the field for years to come.  Even if they can’t attract a majority of the vote, they are likely to end up controlling a ruling parliamentary coalition.  We will have to deal with that scenario almost immediately — and hope Egypt can mature fast enough to end it peacefully.  Algeria didn’t get so lucky and ended up in a deadly civil war in 1991 that still hasn’t reached a certain conclusion.

Update: Ralph Peters offers a bracing slap across the face to the US:

The key point, though, is that we’re not going to determine what happens in Egypt. Egyptians will decide that. We can only play on the margins. And better to back the side with the winning hand—which, in the long term, will be the people, not an 82-year-old dictator with dynastic aspirations (which have evaporated).

And no, a democratically elected government in Egypt would not be as pliable a partner for the United States as Mubarak’s regime has been. Don’t like it? Tell me exactly how you’d fix it. Invade? We can’t deal with 30 million hillbillies in Afghanistan, let alone Egypt’s 80 million people and its US-equipped military. Let’s talk real options, not talk-show fantasies.

Yes, a democratic Egypt will see the Muslim Brotherhood represented in parliament. Well, guess what? In democratic elections, sometimes Al Franken gets a seat. Better to have the Islamists inside the tent, uh…waving out…than outside shooting in.

Don’t let the pundits b.s. you, though: Those demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other Egyptian cities are not made up of fundamentalists. While extremists would love to exploit the situation (we’d only help them by continuing to pretend that Mubarak remains a player), they don’t, can’t and won’t control it. Look at the pictures. You don’t see masses of bearded men in traditional dress waving Korans, but guys in jeans and windbreakers, college girls and entire families. What you’re seeing is Egypt’s version of the Tea Party: angry citizens who feel their government has refused to hear their voices. The difference is that, in Egypt, they haven’t had an outlet at the ballot box. These are not Islamist fanatics. Let’s not drive them into the arms of the radicals.

Read it all; it’s long, but well worth the time.