This column appeared in the Jan. 11, 2011, issue of USA Today.
The heat is on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Everyone these days seems to want him to step aside and make way for the democratic revolution.
OUR VIEW: Egypt triumphs over tyranny
But history should sober us up. Many revolutions seem promising at first but don't turn out very well. The French Revolution brought a bloodbath called "The Terror" and the rise of the warmonger Napoleon. The Russian Revolution gave us Lenin, Stalin and the gulags. The Iranian Revolution ended with Ayatollah Khomeini and radical Islam rising to power in the Middle East.
The American Revolution was the exception. That's because the Americans had the right principles and habits. They believed that all human beings are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," and that government's fundamental job is to protect those rights — not to bring about social utopia or economic paradise or the rule of God on earth.
The Americans also had been governing themselves locally for a long time before the revolution. They were used to the rule of law and to the rights and responsibilities of freedom.
Can we say the same about Egypt?
In the early 20th century, Egyptian elites tried to bring about democracy, but it failed. Then Egypt flirted with Arab nationalism, which is still a force. And for a long time one of the centers of opposition has been the Muslim Brotherhood, which has never really given up the idea of imposing sharia law.
Admittedly, Egypt has acquired some of the elements of democracy, such as vibrant newspapers and restricted multiparty elections. Habits of democracy, however, are not enough without underlying principles of freedom.
A free society is within the capacity of any country, including Egypt. But it's not clear that the revolutionaries in Egypt understand and believe that true democracy is based not just on voting but also on respecting all of the individual rights of citizens, including economic freedom, freedom of speech and, especially, religious freedom.
Even if Mubarak steps aside right now, the revolution will not bring real democracy unless it has a clear commitment to those principles.