Observers compared it to the toppling of Russian domains in 1989, but there are important differences. Crucially, no Mikhail Gorbachev exists among the great powers that support the Arab dictators. Rather, Washington and its allies keep to the well-established principle that democracy is acceptable only insofar as it conforms to strategic and economic objectives: fine in enemy territory (up to a point), but not in our backyard, please, unless properly tamed.
One 1989 comparison has some validity: Romania, where Washington maintained its support for Nicolae Ceausescu, the most vicious of the east European dictators, until the allegiance became untenable. Then Washington hailed his overthrow while the past was erased. That is a standard pattern: Ferdinand Marcos, Jean-Claude Duvalier, Chun Doo-hwan, Suharto and many other useful gangsters. It may be under way in the case of Hosni Mubarak, along with routine efforts to try to ensure a successor regime will not veer far from the approved path. The current hope appears to be Mubarak loyalist General Omar Suleiman, just named Egypt's vice-president. Suleiman, the longtime head of the intelligence services, is despised by the rebelling public almost as much as the dictator himself.
A common refrain among pundits is that fear of radical Islam requires (reluctant) opposition to democracy on pragmatic grounds. While not without some merit, the formulation is misleading. The general threat has always been independence. The US and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism.