A self-perpetuating cycle is at work in our understanding of events in the Middle East. Most revolutions tend to be led at the start by liberals: consider those of France, Russia and Iran. Tunisia and Egypt have followed the same pattern. The west's cameras and writers rush there – the John Simpsons and George Aligiahs in all their pomp and glory. Then they depart. On the back of their stories, a midrash of commentary is woven in Britain and elsewhere: most of it lauds the coming triumph of democracy, and some of it claims that George Bush has been vindicated.
Further reports from the region draw from blogging. This is natural given the advent of the net and Twitter, but it can be deceptive. Bloggers tend to be drawn from the elites, not the masses – the bulk of the 82 million people, for example, who make up the mostly non-net enabled population of Egypt. These contributions tend to further the mass of opinion pieces that I described, bolstered by occasional return visits to the Middle East by the great men of journalism. And so the cycle contines.
But after they've left again, others arrive. In a magisterial article this morning, Charles Moore describes how, largely unreported, a vast crowd turned out in Cairo to hear Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, returned from Qatar after years of exile. Qaradawi, feted as a moderate by Ken Livingstone (but barred from Britain during the last Parliament after pressure from David Cameron), advocates – as Moore points out – "what he calls 'the most moderate opinion' that all Muslim women should be subjected to female circumcision without cutting off absolutely everything, as if there is a sort of Blairite 'Third Way' for genital mutilation".
Qaradawi is one of the most important guides of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ed Husain, in a piece behind the Times paywall today, writes that the Brotherhood's commitment to a democratic culture and the rule of law "remains unclear". He also notes that in any future Egyptian election it's likely to win far more than the 20% share of the vote that it gained when it last contested seats. The Daily Mail relates this morning how Islamist mobs have torched buildings in Tunisia's red light district, armed with molotov cocktails and knives, and reports the claimed murder of a Polish Catholic priest – which would be "the first such sectarian murder in modern Tunisian history. And anti-Semitic slogans could be heard outside Tunisia’s main synagogue: this in a country with no history of persecution of its Jewish minority".
But the offering of a few opinion writers, and even the journalism of a big-selling paper like the Mail, will make little impression on the news we get from television and the blogs – which, after all, are our main source of information. All this should give pause for thought to those who argue that the neocons in general, and George Bush in particular, have been proved right. The essence of the neo-con argument was that America should help to replace autocratic regimes with democratic ones. The core of Bush's case was that the United States could no longer take risks, post 9/11, with tyrannies armed with weapons of mass destruction.
However, the Iraq invasion proved that not taking risks, in the form of military intervention based on flawed intelligence, can be as hazardous to western interests as taking them. And – as I've argued before – it's simply too early to say whether the convulsions in the Middle East will lead to no substantial change, to the slow advancement of democracy, to the rise of new Islamist states, or to different results in different places. So at the least, the neo-cons haven't been proved right yet. And at the most, the suggestion that the choice between autocracy and democracy is straightforward should be rigorously probed.
But surely – some will respond – the western world should be pressing for democracy in the Middle East? Wasn't David Cameron right last week to say that claims that Arabs can't do democracy are "almost racist"? He was – but, as the Financial Times pointed out this morning, "Arab leaders probably paid more attention to Mr Cameron pointing out that it took Britain 700 years of political wrangling to embed universal suffrage". Gaining democracy isn't like losing virginity. It doesn't happen at once. The rule of law, free elections, market economies, independent civic institutions – these things take time to accrue.
Western leaders should be salesmen for democracy – projecting its values and virtues with the self-confidence that marked Ronald Reagan out as a great American President. They should stand up to those who seek to export totalitarian ideas, back democratic groups abroad, and support armed movements when it's prudent to do so – all the while seeking to move autocratic allies towards democratic reform. But they must also recognise that choice isn't always between good and evil. It's sometimes between bad and worse. In Egypt (and Tunisia), the choice may not be between the army and a liberal Arab "new dawn". It may be between the army and something even nastier.