History lessons are useful, and when events are in flux it is the past that can shed light on what the future might hold.

Autocracies, as I have indicated in recent columns, have shelf life. But there are caveats in any generalization, and the shelf life of any particular autocracy could get extended beyond its expiry date.

The current crisis in Egypt erupted with surprising speed for President Hosni Mubarak. The public demonstrations demanding an end to his 30-year rule has undermined him and very likely, as he has himself indicated, will end his presidency.

But the Egyptian state over which Mubarak has presided since Oct. 6, 1981 — the terrible day when President Anwar Sadat was gunned down by soldiers with links to the terrorist offsprings of the Muslim Brotherhood — remains more or less intact.

Mubarak’s Egypt, in the language of political science, fits the description of the authoritarian-bureaucratic state in which military officers and civilian technocrats hold the commanding heights of the economy and security.

Mubarak, as president, is only the third public face of an Egypt that emerged out of the military coup of July 1952, which overthrew the monarchy established in 1805.

The man behind the coup was Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, and on his demise in 1970, succeeded by Sadat, followed by Mubarak on Sadat’s death.

Egypt is the Arab world’s largest Sunni Muslim state and, hence, a balancing power since 1979 to Shiite Iran’s regional ambitions. Al-Azhar, the mosque-university in Cairo, is also Sunni Islam’s highly respected centre of religious authority.

The internal foe of the Egyptian state is the Muslim Brotherhood. A political movement founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Brotherhood has sought to merge its jihad-based ideology with mainstream Sunni belief expounded by Al-Azhar.

Since Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood and execution of some leaders, such as Sayyid Qutb, the movement has worked hard to adapt to changing circumstances even as it consolidated its relationship with and financial support from Saudi rulers.

What remains unchanged is the Brotherhood’s goal of establishing a Sunni theocracy, and support for its affiliates in the region, such as Hamas in Gaza, towards achieving similar end.

In the long history of Egypt, and in the Arab world, there is an absence of a culture that embraces and supports individual freedom. Arab politics has no example of an individual such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Vaclav Havel with unquestionable credentials of a democrat and a liberal providing leadership for a democratic alternative.

It is also ironic that the traditional doctrine of Sunni Islam taught in Al-Azhar gives preference to order — even when order is despotic as it has been in Muslim history — over anarchy.

The misfortune of Egyptians is to be squeezed between the military’s iron fist and the Brotherhood’s ideology. In such circumstances, it is a delusion to expect democracy to sprout unattended in the desert of Arab autocracy without self-sacrificing leaders to prepare the grounds.

Egypt survived the immense ignominy of defeat in the June 1967 war with Israel and Sadat’s murder. It will likely ride the present crisis, and this is not to be decried when the alternative is Muslim Brotherhood acquiring power.