Pajamas Media’s excellent Michael J. Totten, a foreign correspondent who finances his adventures through reader contributions, has perhaps made the most important comment so far on what is happening in Egypt:

All this talk about whether democracy in Egypt will be a good thing or a bad thing just goes to show how misunderstood the word democracy is. Democracy refers not so much to elections but to liberalism in the general sense of the word.

If Egyptians elect the Muslim Brotherhood in a free and fair election, and the Muslim Brotherhood then rigs or even cancels every election that follows, Egypt will not be in any way shape or form a democracy. It will be a dictatorship that happened to have an election.

Mature liberal democracies have checks and balances, the separation of powers, equal rights for minorities, restrictions on the power and reach of the victors, and guarantees that those who lose will not be persecuted.

The Arab world doesn’t need a one-time plebiscite on whom the next tyrant is going to be. It needs liberalism. Egypt won’t get it from the Muslim Brotherhood, nor was Egypt ever going to get it from Hosni Mubarak.

Charles Krauthammer writes today about the same dilemma, noting that as exhilarating as revolution can be and as desirable as elections are, in the Middle East they have too often ended in tyranny:

This is why our paramount moral and strategic interest in Egypt is real democracy in which power does not devolve to those who believe in one man, one vote, one time. That would be Egypt’s fate should the Muslim Brotherhood prevail. That was the fate of Gaza, now under the brutal thumb of Hamas, a Palestinian wing (see Article 2 of Hamas’s founding covenant) of the Muslim Brotherhood.

We are told by sage Western analysts not to worry about the Brotherhood because it probably commands only about 30 percent of the vote. This is reassurance? In a country where the secular democratic opposition is weak and fractured after decades of persecution, any Islamist party commanding a third of the vote rules the country.

Elections will be held. The primary U.S. objective is to guide a transition period that gives secular democrats a chance.

Krauthammer says that Mohamed ElBaradei, who covered for Iran when he was the U.N.’s atomic weapons inspector (and, as if that isn’t bad enough: he also has a Nobel Prize), would be a disaster. But there is one institution that holds hope:

The Egyptian military, on the other hand, is the most stable and important institution in the country. It is Western-oriented and rightly suspicious of the Brotherhood. And it is widely respected, carrying the prestige of the 1952 Free Officers Movement that overthrew the monarchy and the 1973 October War that restored Egyptian pride along with the Sinai.

The military is the best vehicle for guiding the country to free elections over the coming months. Whether it does so with Mubarak at the top, or with Vice President Omar Suleiman or perhaps with some technocrat who arouses no ire among the demonstrators, matters not to us. If the army calculates that sacrificing Mubarak (through exile) will satisfy the opposition and end the unrest, so be it.

To repeat: Revolutions often end badly. One reason they do so is that the left is sentimental about uprisings, and the other reason is that non-democratic forces often use the chaos to gain power. Add to that the sentimentalists veer left and are willing to overlook the dictatorial aspects of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. There were two sentimentalists on TV last night, one complaining that the top Egyptian army officials have “big houses,” and the other ecstatic about the dangerous ElBaradei.

She mentioned several times that ElBaradei had been a suave bureaucrat in Europe but had ripped off his tie and was now wearing a leather jacket in the streets of Cairo. She mentioned the jacket more than once. This passes for thinking on the left today: Cool jacket, Mr.  ElBaradei, want to lead the revolution? Hey, I’ll bet Robespierre had some cool duds too. Is our White House able to resist this kind of thinking?