Being a dictator is a tough business. Just ask Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. One day you're better than a king, better even than, say, Tony Soprano in his prime. And the next? Well, you turn into a jet-set hobo like the late Shah of Iran. Or, worst-case scenario, you end up dead. That's what happened to Saddam Hussein and, ultimately, the Shah. The best you might hope for is an all-expenses-paid permanent vacation to the wastes of Saudi Arabia. Call this the Idi Amin option. Amin, of course, is also dead. Kidney failure. King Faisal Hospital.
All things considered, the thugs who ruled the Soviet Union and the captive nations behind the Iron Curtain made out okay. Mikhail Gorbachev almost snagged a Nobel Peace Prize. Those American Express ads he's in, however, are still a slick consolation.
Mubarak had staying power. He hung on for 30 years. But he was a hump; he had no vision, no moves. As authoritarian as Mubarak was, he was not as vicious as other strongmen. But neither did he have the charisma of Nasser nor the soul of Sadat, his two historic predecessors.
Egypt is America's biggest client state. Mubarak took his nearly $2 billion a year in US aid and sat on the Islamist extremists. After George W. Bush destroyed the balance of power between Iran and Iraq with his ill-conceived and unsuccessful war against Iraq, Egypt - with more than 80 million people, the world's most populous Arab country - became even more important.
What the world is witnessing now is an almost spontaneous revolt by those in Egypt's under- and/or unemployed university-educated middle class, who, thanks to rising food prices, are having trouble feeding themselves.
It is going to take weeks, months, maybe even years for this to play itself out.
The greatest short-term danger is that the Egyptian army will cease keeping munitions from being smuggled into Gaza. If that happens, another Palestinian war with Israel will erupt, and threaten to spread to Lebanon and perhaps engage Iran.
Egypt may be in disarray, but its geopolitical importance remains paramount.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
The news is that one of former president George W. Bush's 29-year-old twin daughters, Barbara, has joined the growing number of presidential and vice-presidential family members who - in defiance of the right-wing thought police - are endorsing same-sex marriage.
Last spring, Barbara's mother, Laura, voiced her support for legalizing gay marriage. Already on board with this idea were Cindy and Meghan McCain, the wife and daughter of 2008 GOP presidential candidate John McCain.
Also supporting marriage equality are Mary Cheney, former vice-president Dick Cheney's daughter - who is a lesbian - and, interestingly, Cheney himself.
Bush made her case in a brief video broadcast by the Human Rights Campaign at its New York dinner.
"New York is about fairness and equality," she says in the video, "and everyone should have the right to marry the person they love."
Supporters of gay rights in general and marriage rights in particular are understandably frustrated at the glacial pace of change. Consider how long it took to abolish "don't ask, don't tell." Think about the remaining challenge of scrapping once and for all the obnoxiously named Defense of Marriage Act.