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Egypt stands at a crossroads

IT is coming into high season for holidays to see the wonders of ancient Egypt. Instead, prospective tourists are being advised not to travel, as modern Egypt appears to descend into anarchy.

The speed of events has take more than innocent tourists by surprise. From Washington to Jerusalem to Riyadh, governments with vital interests at stake have struggled to find even the right verbal response.

The collapse of Iraq is an awful example of what can happen in countries with such complex problems when a dictator falls. President Hosni Mubarak is no Saddam Hussein, but US Vice-President Joe Biden was wide of the mark in saying that Mr Mubarak is not a dictator.

US President Barack Obama's administration has changed its tune since. This is a difficult one for a president who is supposed to stand for fundamental values as well as US strategic interests. Mr Mubarak may not officially be a US ally but, along with other uncomfortable regimes like those of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, he has at least been the enemy of America's enemies in the region.

No one knows who, or what, might replace him. The people of Egypt are entitled to democracy but a genuine democracy, representing their views, might not be as friendly towards the West in general and the US in particular.

That would not be a good enough reason for the West to try to crush a nascent democracy. Alas, while the protests may indeed have begun with a genuine desire for more freedom, conditions in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, make the evolution of popular democracy unlikely.

The forces of militarism and Islamic radicalism both look stronger and better organised than the reformers. A clash between them would spell trouble for the world, and victory for either is a recipe for long-term instability.