THE revolution in Egypt presents policy through a looking glass: what you see depends on who you are. If you want stability, you see a failed state. If you value freedom, you see it in the streets. If you fear autocrats, you see the 30 years of emergency rule. If you fear Islamists, you see the Muslim Brotherhood in the alleys.
Egypt may be all of these. Or it may be none. Since 1952, Egypt has had Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, but it has really had only one ruler: the army.
Generals are not necessarily forever. The Turkish military, formerly so dominant, has faded from the stage in the face of a populist regime tinged with Islamism. But by definition, an army that has held the throne for more than half a century has staying power.
The faces have changed, but the army has remained.
Yet the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, should remind us of one simple truth. The leaders of these countries, like autocrats around the world, were afraid.
The autocrats are not just afraid of Western military power, though that does scare them. Nor are they simply afraid of freedom, though they know that if it triumphs, they will have lost. Nor are they worried about losing elections, for the simple reason that they never hold an honest one.
They are afraid of their own people. They know perfectly well that if they lose power, the best they can hope for – like Mubarak now – is foreign exile.
At worst, they will be put up against a wall and shot, or torn apart in the street. No Western politician has to worry about such a thing.
It is almost impossible for us in the comfortable, contented West to imagine what this fear is like, to understand how it shapes everything they do.
We fantasise about the existence of an international community; we believe that everyone is interested in cooperation; we blame ourselves when it does not materialise.
But on the other side of the hill, the only imperative is to stay in power. In our world, to fall is to go away to a comfortable world of memoirs and tribute dinners.
In theirs, to fall is to die horribly, with their entire family, or to flee into the bare toleration of foreigners and be stalked by assassins.
In our world, politics is the sport of the civilised, and international relations about the spread of the good and the right. In theirs, politics is a blood sport played out in real blood; they do what they need to do to make sure that it’s someone else doing the bleeding.
At worst, most of us will experience it only a few times in our lives, if at all. We need not – indeed, we should not – sympathise with this fear. But we should understand that it exists, and that, driven by it, autocrats will do what they need to do to survive.
One popular strategy is bribery. We look at the bloated state, the public handouts and the immense civil services of Egypt, and we see a state struggling to provide welfare. If you are an autocrat, it is actually about buying enough clients to keep the people off the streets, and off your neck.
Another approach is to provide education and media. We look at the schools and believe the society is moving forward, that literacy means prosperity, that the alphabet brings peace.
We don’t look at what’s being taught, the relentless training in hatred, the schoolbooks dripping with slanders, the fevered desire to blame foreigners for domestic poverty and oppression.
And then there is the world abroad. We look at the United Nations, all the polite conferences, all the human rights treaties, and we see a sincere effort. We see differences, true, but we also see shared values, shared hopes, shared desires.
We don’t understand that, for autocrats, all of this is just a way to legitimise their hold on power.
It is not just that the dictatorship of Tunisia gained legitimacy by having the same standing in the UN as the democracy of Canada, though that is bad enough. The UN’s institutions, dominated by the autocrats, said nothing for decades about Egypt’s emergency rule. But they are sure that the US is reliably in the wrong, and they cannot criticise Israel often enough.
That criticism is echoed by voices across the well-meaning, liberal, uncomprehending West, who genuinely believe they are speaking for peace. But it all serves simply to justify the rule of the autocrats.
If the US is oppressive, then autocratic rule is simply the way things must be. If the UN agrees that Israel is the worst state in the world, then what those slanderous schools teach is correct. If global capitalism is a sinister conspiracy, then the regime’s denial of economic freedom – which was what sparked the revolution in Tunisia – is a service to its people, not an attack on their dignity.
None of this is about human rights, peace, or prosperity. That is what we want, and we believe that is what they want too. But what they actually want is to stay in power, for unlike us, they know the cost of losing it.
It is a fine thing that our leaders do not have to pay that cost themselves: it is part of what makes us democracies. But that is no reason to mistake fantasy for reality, no reason to look in the mirror and delude ourselves that we are looking out a window.
In most of the world, fear rules.
Ted Bromund is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Yorkshire Post