The world has every reason to be mesmerized by the events unfolding in Tunisia, Egypt and who knows where next. Every reason but one: the expectation that this ferment will yield working democracies.
Talk is cheap, and the 24-hour news stations must glut themselves on it. Think of their chatter as the fast food of news analysis. So they bandy about words such as democracy and freedom as if they were out there for the taking.
This partakes of about as much reality as a Hollywood movie - the conclusion of Gladiator, for example. Maximus (Russell Crowe), having slain the evil emperor Commodus in the arena, announces the restoration of democracy at Rome. Everybody seems cool with that. Apparently, we're to think that candidates for consul will soon be contesting the Cisalpine primary and launching campaigns of negative graffiti. After all, the crowd at the Colosseum had cheered Maximus and booed Commodus, hadn't it? What more was needed to prove it was ready for self-government? (So what if Rome had never been democratic to begin with?)
The real Commodus was assassinated in 192 AD, but the ensuing bloody power struggle didn't yield democracy. It merely spawned Septimius Severus, an emperor as cruel as Commodus but shrewder. Rome, having lived under military dictatorship for more than two centuries, would do so for nearly three more (at the end of which beckoned feudalism). Somehow, their diet of bread and circuses hadn't prepared the people to resume the task of governance.
Unlike the Romans, we live in a democratic age, so there's encouragement available to newcomers. Egypt and Tunisia will need plenty. For the Egyptians, it's not even a matter of resuming self-rule after a lengthy hiatus: They've never known it. From the ancient Pharaohs through the modern ones (Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak), the Egyptians haven't ruled themselves for so much as an hour. The three recent potentates have worked hard at keeping their people in tutelage; they've offered democratic shams to foreclose democratic realities.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have been impressive, not least in their relative gentleness. Each has generated a bare minimum of political violence. (That criminality has accompanied the chaos was inevitable.) When the protesters avow that the tumult is all about freedom and democracy, there's no reason to doubt their earnestness.
But disgust with despotism, poverty, inequality and corruption is the easy part of the revolution. Lofty hopes don't suffice for successful self-government, and may undercut it. Proficiency at organizing demonstrations on Twitter will likewise take you only so far. What's needed is the development of institutions of civil society - schools for the practice of democracy. In Tunisia and Egypt alike, decades of mingled co-optation and repression have hollowed out all social institutions and nipped alternative leadership in the bud. Massive structural unemployment mitigated only by food subsidies has bred desperation, but not a citizenry experienced at managing complex affairs.
Democracy also requires strong leadership, especially in its nascent stages. This may emerge, but in neither country has it done so yet. Mohamed ElBaradei? That remains to be seen.
And democratic self-government isn't likely to arise spontaneously. Those pundits who anticipate such a blossoming of democracy ex nihilo have only harsh words for George W. Bush's "freedom agenda." But it's hardly an accident that the only functioning Arab democracy, albeit a struggling one, is Iraq. Obviously, Tunisia and Egypt aren't crying out for someone to invade them. Still, they may well require the same intensive international nurturing. But in the impending decade of deep Western budget cuts, they won't easily obtain it.
Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and a distinguished fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.