The test of a dictator's power

The test of a dictator's power, and hence their ability to stay in power, is whether they have troops willing to fire on their own people.

An army that is willing to shoot demonstrators enables a dictator to maintain their power against popular uprisings. Ironically the dictator becomes the prisoner of the army which is maintaining his power through their willingness to use force.

In Egypt, the military occupies a privileged and revered position in society. For the last thirty years they have backed Mubarak, and Sadat and Gamel Abdul Nasser before that (which takes us back to 1956).

But once they made it clear that they would not fire on the demonstrators in Tahrir square, Mubarak was finished, because he had no other source of force.

That doesn't mean the demonstrators have won. The tyrant is down, but democracy is not yet in place. It is possible that another military strongman will emerge, particularly if the military fear that democracy (or the Islamic Brotherhood) would threaten their position in society.

In Libya, Gaddafi has troops willing to shoot their fellow Libyans, as does the ruler of Bahrain. In Tunisia, this was not the case and there, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled.

This whole business started when a student, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire because he was tired of repression and corruption. Protests spread quickly, fuelled by social media.

I have been reading a book 1968, the year that rocked the world, by Mark Kurlansky. That year, students took over universities in New York, Paris, Berlin (and other places), the regime in France came close to falling, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, there were race riots in many American cities, the Vietnam War was at its height, flower powered was blooming and in Czechoslovakia, there was a freedom movement that challenged the very basis of communist rule.

The Prague Spring (as it was known) was snuffed out by Soviet tanks. A young student called Jan Palach set himself on fire in Wenceslas Square on 16 January 1969 in protest against the demoralisation of the people. Freedom didn't triumph there, or in many other places in 1968. Authority won; sometimes democratically, sometimes by force.

Don't be surprised if there is repression before democracy in the Middle East too, but it won't be the Americans, Israelis, or Russians doing the repressing. The rulers of countries with uprisings will be fighting their own people.

The other lesson of the current troubles in the Middle East is that ultimately even the harshest and most repressive rulers have to have the consent of the ruled. Otherwise they simply store up trouble against the day when the rationale for their oppressive power is exhausted and empty, and the people take control of their own destiny once more.

That is why I am optimistic - cautiously so, but optimistic nonetheless - that change will bring more freedom, and that power will come to genuine democrats and not to either a new series of dictators or to extreme Islamists.