Egyptian history plays tricks with its interpreters. This ancient society is known for the stability given it by the Nile, a well-mannered and orderly river, and by a pharaonic culture where the rulers were deities. But this timeless image is largely false. Egypt's peasant society has been prone to violent upheavals. Order has often hung by a thread, as a proud people alternate between submission and rebellion.
We are now in the midst of one of these alternations. On Feb. 11, Egypt's last pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, bent to the will of his people and relinquished power. What we are witnessing in Egypt today is not the consequence of democracy but rather a half-century of authoritarianism. The chaos and the lawlessness issue out of the lawlessness of the former regime. As crony capitalism had its way with the economy, the military elite, the officer corps, had to be given its share of the loot. Having turned away from war and military adventures abroad, they were rewarded with economic enterprises and privileges of their own—exclusive clubs, vacation homes, land grants, you name it.