It is a risk, and could destabilise the country and the region, but who are Mubarak or the west to deny it to them?
I blame the fall of the Berlin Wall. I'm not one of those weirdos who mourns the collapse of communism. It's just that, in retrospect, the problem with the events of 1989 is that they happened so easily. The wall fell in a weekend, then Hungary followed, then Romania, and eventually even the Soviet Union itself. And all, amazingly, without almost anyone, the odious Ceausescus notable exceptions, getting hurt.
In reality it was rather more messy, of course. Yet the speed and totality with which the communist system crumpled in Europe were spectacular. The 1989 collapse has framed a lot of expectations whenever any subsequent despot or military regime is challenged in the streets. We have come to expect revolutions to be quick, successful and peaceful. We seem to have forgotten what most revolutionaries of earlier eras took for granted – that their fate is as likely to be defeat, and even death, as victory.
Most of the time, despots don't fold – they fight back. Sometimes very effectively. See Burma. See Belarus. See Zimbabwe. And, for the past couple of days in Cairo, see Egypt. It's a mistake to assume all dictators are isolated tinpot tyrants who will obligingly decamp to the French Riviera with their ill-gotten gains at the first stirrings of trouble or as soon as John Simpson has positioned himself outside the presidential palace to see history made. As often as not, threatened despots summon the army and the secret police, and manoeuvre and terrorise their challengers into submission.
That is plainly part of what Hosni Mubarak and some of those around him are trying to achieve in Egypt. Mubarak may be a wounded beast, but he is still a big beast, and still – in some diminishing ways – a strong one. For 30 years he has sat atop a pyramid of Egyptian power whose interests are almost as much opposed to radical change as his own are. Whether his allies and battalions have the common purpose to maintain their own power when he finally steps down is difficult to predict. They certainly have an interest in such an outcome. And they are still trying today, making further strategic concessions while attacking protesters in the cities. Anything is possible. But that's the point. This is not a done deal.
Nevertheless, it is clear what ought to happen. Mubarak should go, or should make visible preparations to go as soon as possible – perhaps even, another tense Friday, tomorrow. Then there ought to be a transitional government based not just on the ruling National Democratic party and the army, but on opposition parties too. After that, free elections, independently verified, later this year. Restrictions on freedom of speech and the media should be eased immediately.
Easy to say. Much harder to do. But not impossible. Washington is manifestly now attempting to steer events that way – belatedly doing the right thing in Egypt, though inevitably berated by its usual enemies for it. More important, powerful Egyptians are getting there too. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq's apology for Wednesday's violence did not go far enough, but it was a strikingly pragmatic intervention. The new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, struck the same tone. Above all, though, these are the demands of the thousands of protesters who have camped out in Tahrir Square for most of the last week. "We need democracy in Egypt. We just want what you have," as a headscarf-wearing woman told the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof this week. Sounds right to me.
Would democracy solve Egypt's problems? On its own, probably not. Most Egyptians are very poor. Forty percent subsist on less than $2 a day. Corruption and waste are massive problems. The size of the army is disproportionate. But true democracy would be a hugely important building-block for the future. Call it false consciousness and a phoney transition if you must. Call it a potentially destabilising change for Egypt and the region too – as both Israel and China do (the latter even bans its people from knowing what is happening in Egypt). But if it's what Egyptians want – and they continue to say very loudly that it is – then who are Mubarak or the outside world to deny it to them?
Is it a risk? Of course. The risk of a civil conflict with immense repercussions elsewhere has to be taken very seriously. But it is always tempting to say that everything is too dangerous to be put at risk. I am currently reading the final volume of Edmund Morris's masterly biography of Theodore Roosevelt, which starts with TR visiting Cairo in 1910 and endorsing British rule in Egypt as the least worst alternative to what he dismissed as hopelessly ineffective Egyptian nationalists and unchanged, bigoted Muslims. Not much change there then. A century on, plenty of foreign nations and some Egyptians still prefer the devil they know than the one that they don't.
That is not a stupid position. But there is both a principled counter-argument to it and a pragmatic one. The principled one is that the right to elect the government of your choice is a human right, whether for British prisoners or for Egyptian adults. If Egyptians want it they should have it.
The pragmatic one is that Egypt can take it. Yes, Egypt is a divided society. What society is not? But it is also a resilient one and in myriad ways, though always under pressure, broadly based and multicultural. This is rooted in its history. Egypt has been open to the outside world not just in the time of Mubarak but since the reign of Muhammad Ali, and even of Cleopatra. It has also long been historically in the van of modernising trends in Islamic thought which, while emphatically anti-imperialist, also find a place for everything from science to parliaments.
There are threats to this stability. And of course the outcome is uncertain. Yet the rising in Cairo has mostly been marked even now by restraint. There has been little hysteria. Anti-western and anti-Israeli paranoia has been conspicuously absent. The much touted threat from the Muslim Brotherhood has yet to emerge. These are all positive signs.
Only a fool would dismiss the possibility that this week's events may unravel in dangerous ways. Revolutions are volatile, not neat and biddable. If a revolutionary mood gathers speed, or even if a prospective revolution is crushed by the regime, the impact will be felt way beyond Egypt itself. The drama on the streets of Cairo is Egypt's to resolve, not ours. After Iraq, there is little that the west can do. But we are affected by what is happening in Egypt. We have a stake in the outcome, whether we acknowledge it or not.