Unsettling America

LONDON – Is there more to be said about Egypt? Hosni Mubarak has been sacrificed to save the military regime. A “strongman” who cannot keep order in the streets is of no use to anyone. Whether “democracy” will ensue is much more dubious. Judging on the basis of Pakistan, and much of the rest of the Muslim world, periods of (corrupt) civilian rule will alternate with “cleansing” military coups.

I doubt that most Egyptians put what we call democracy at the top of their political agenda. Journalists who claim otherwise are not a representative sample, even in Western countries. They are a restless breed, flitting round the world’s trouble spots, pen and camera poised. Freedom of expression is in their bones; mass protests their visual lifeblood. They try to report the world as it is, but theirs is not the world of most people – their business depends on the disruption of “ordinary” business, so they systematically underestimate people’s desire for law and order (or at least order).

Most people, it seems, will tolerate a modest amount of political repression, including secret police, torture, and corruption, if it delivers security and a modicum of prosperity and fairness. Otherwise, there is no explanation for the longevity of dictatorships such as Mubarak’s 30-year rule. Likewise, in the referendum that ended his 16-year rule in Chile in 1990, General Augusto Pinochet, with thousands of tortured and vanished victims in his grisly cupboard, ran on a law-and-order platform and received 44% of the vote.

Most Western leaders think naturally in terms of a “transition to democracy.” This is what they want to happen in Egypt, hoping that democracy will not jeopardize Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. But Western democracies’ combination of freedom and order – the West’s most precious gift to the world – is the product of a long history that cannot be replicated in short order.