Watch out for Egyptian radicals

Thursday - 2/3/2011, 10:23am EST

The Egyptian revolution playing out on television screens around the world may end badly if history is any guide.

The Egyptian people are justified in demanding the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. He has ruled for 30 years, mostly by force and intimidation. Mubarak does not tolerate free speech. He doesn't allow free elections. His party won the November election with 98 percent of the vote. Can anyone believe that result given the millions of Egyptians in the streets now?

So far, the uprising has not descended into chaos. But a reported 300 people have been killed, government buildings have been torched, and criminals are terrorizing law-abiding citizens and neighborhoods. Nobel Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei returned to his homeland to lead the country, but he has the smell of Alexander Kerensky about him. Peaceful protesters are now eager to restore law and order.

That's where the danger lies for the United States and the greater Middle East.

History is filled with well-intentioned revolutions that have ended with despots and tyrants worse than those they replaced. The monsters were disciplined, organized, and ruthless, successful values in a lawless land.

The 1917 Russian Revolution overthrew incompetent, corrupt and crazy czars. For a brief period, democratic forces including Mr. Kerensky were poised to lead, but they bungled the job and were ousted. In stepped a small but disciplined band of Bolsheviks.

They had been tiny in number, but their leader, Vladimir Lenin, was determined and merciless. He and his Communists restored order and millions died as a result.

The Nazis in Germany in the 1920s were a small collection of oddball and delusional malcontents. Their charismatic leader, Adolph Hitler, filled the vacuum of power when the democratic Weimar Republic dithered and failed to put Germany back on its feet in the Great Depression. Again, millions died under Hitler.

Iran was an autocratic and secular monarchy that fell quickly, much like Tunisia.

Fundamentalist Muslims, organized and ready, took power and have ruled with force ever since.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the strongest and best organized of the anti-Mubarak groups in Egypt. They reportedly represent 20 percent of the population. They are keeping a low profile in the current turmoil, but they are the terrorists who assassinated Anwar Sadat and tutored al Qaeda's bloody Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The United States, tied down with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can offer only stern advice. President Obama has done that. He has done the right thing to get out of the way and to encourage Egyptians to pursue a free, democratic country. Congressional Republicans concur.

Mr. Obama, however, must be prepared to offer more than good counsel if the Muslim Brotherhood begins to usurp the messy but mostly peaceful change to democracy now unfolding.