In the 1980s and 1990s, especially around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world lived through a series of notable democratic revolutions. People threw off the communist or dictatorial yoke, by refusing any longer to obey their governments. In most cases the regimes fell quickly and with mercifully few fatalities. Many of the countries that went through this process have settled down to political parties, free elections and greater civil liberties.
This week-end we have been witnessing high drama on the streets of the major Egyptian cities. This follows hard on the heels of something similar in Tunisia. Where the government resists violence occurs. The commentators and experts in that part of the world seem surprised it is happening, and are very unsure of what will happen next.
It is difficult to see that the Egyptian President can continue in office. The crowd wants him out, and he has lost control of the cities. The bungled attempt to impose a curfew failed. The crude intervention to stop people using mobile phones and other modern technology to direct the rebellion is failing. The proposal that they could have new Ministers of his choosing to solve the problem will not convince many. There are limits to what tanks and armed troops can do against a protest as large and determined as this one seems to be.
There are two crucial questions for all our futures. Will this spread to other countries? And will it result in a more liberal civil and political society, or some other form of tyranny?
There could well be more of this, as other oppositions in other countries study what the Tunisians and Egyptians have done. The experts are at a loss as to what might emerge in its place. As we have seen in other Middle East countries where democracy has been imposed by new forces after western military intervention, it is unlikely a country can go straight to a western style party based democracy with a good range of civil liberties. Nor, on a brighter note, is it possible to see how any new arrangement and government can impose the same degree of control as in the past, now there is so much anarchic new technology available to the young and energetic populations of countries like Egypt.
The ability of government to keep the peace and to keep authority is always a difficult task, even in well organised and stable democracies. Our approach in the west is to say to people you may not like what the government is doing, but you have freedom to campaign peacefully against it, and to work away to dislodge the government at the next election. Where states allow neither of these pressure valves, they are vulnerable to street riots, as we now see again.
Elected governments can also experience difficulties in maintaining authority, where they misjudge the mood or make serious mistakes. The Irish government has just been brought down by the pressure of public opinion. The interesting question there is what happens if the Irish people decide to elect a new government or group of parties that do not accept the EU loan settlement the old government is just pushing through? Then there will be a test of how much democracy an EU member state in special measures still enjoys.