In the end, change for Egypt was a fast train coming ,Demonstrations in Egypt

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My last trip to Egypt was in 2004. It had been four years between visits. Previously I had been visiting family more or less annually.

As it happens, the break was useful. It allowed me to perceive the creeping accumulation of a thousand gradual changes in the Egyptian mood.

The changes were worrying. My overwhelming experience of Egyptian society had been one of constantly surprising warmth. Everywhere I went, people wanted to know my life story, invite me into their shops for tea, only to send me home with gifts rather than having made sales. People I had never met would take an hour out of their day to direct me through Cairo's impossibly intricate streets to find my way home again. Others would share taxis with me out of necessity, then end up inviting me to their place for dinner by trip's end. Perhaps the story of an Australian-born Egyptian intrigued them unusually, but one thing was never in doubt: their interest was genuine, their warmth unfeigned. Often it meant I could get nothing done. Every random encounter seemed to result in hours of unscheduled conversation.

By 2004, people weren't interested anymore. They were polite and helpful, certainly. But almost uniformly they had a fiercer introspection about them. Conversations more quickly came around to the hopelessness of life, the impossible costs of living even for the middle class, and just how reprehensible the Mubarak regime had become. This last fact is of immense significance. Once upon a time, if you pushed them, Egyptians might have spoken in hushed tones about Mubarak. I had met countless people who, at least on their own account, had friends thrown into prison for no discernible reason other than that they had beards and were therefore suspected of being Islamists. Now those people - lots of them - were growing beards themselves and saying things like: "let them throw me in prison".

As a friend put it to me last week, Hosni Mubarak's greatest asset has always been the sense of resignation of his brutalised people. He has long been hated, but for just as long, very few Egyptians really believed they could ever do anything about it. It is easy - and partly correct - to say that Tunisia's uprising in the past month changed that. But the signs were evident back in 2004 and probably earlier. I returned from that trip telling anyone polite enough to listen that Egypt was heading for a revolution at some stage. It just seemed that obvious. My guess was 10 years. Looks like that may have been conservative.

Lots of other things had been obvious long before then. Like the fact that Hosni Mubarak owed his power just about entirely to Washington. It has long been a fact not often enough stated that Egypt is the second-largest recipient of US aid behind Israel. Most of that aid goes to the military, which ultimately, is the Egyptian institution that has facilitated Mubarak's rule. If you want to understand the widespread anti-Western sentiment that exists in the Middle East, start here. It's one thing having to endure a ruler that is relentlessly corrupt, has completely destroyed the economy, and is one of the world's better torturers. It's something else to know that the reason you live like this is because it suits the policy designs of elites in Washington or London. Imagine what it is like for Egyptians to hear Tony Blair say just now that Mubarak is "immensely courageous and a force for good".

Blair was referring to Mubarak's assistance on the Middle East Peace Process. And in so doing he was merely echoing the axioms of so much Western foreign policy. That a compliant dictator would provide "stability" and is preferable to a more troublesome democrat. Someone who, for instance, cares about the interests and desires of their own people.

It is difficult to overestimate the damage this patronage has done to Egypt, and the region more generally. Mubarak's rule, like that of his fellow Arab dictators, has not merely destroyed an economy. It has destroyed an entire political culture. Those currently bemoaning the lack of a viable alternative to Mubarak should reflect on the fact that this is far from an accidental by-product of Western foreign policies. Mubarak's relentless destruction of opposition parties of all stripes was no secret and, on balance, suited Western "interests". It never bothered us greatly while it was just the Egyptians suffering. Those who fear the emergence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood often forget that its (often overstated) popularity derives very significantly from its position as a coherent anti-Mubarak resistance movement.

But, I hear you say, a democratic Egyptian (or Jordanian, or Yemeni...) regime would have triggered the apocalypse; that it would have meant a string of potentially violent anti-Western regimes, deeply hostile to Israel and with the capacity to destabilise the region profoundly. None of that changes what should have been so clear for so long:vthat change was coming anyway. The West, and especially the United States, had a choice: continue to prop up dictators and watch the revolution overtake their "interests", or review the odious aid program and take the process of reform seriously.

The "democratic transition" that suddenly became so popular once Egypt exploded now sounds unrealistic and desperate. The protesters won't wait for one, and no one has the capacity or trust to deliver it immediately. The truth is that it should have begun years, even decades ago. At this stage, the choice seems to be between revolution and more of the repressive same - with or without Mubarak. Yes, a more independently minded Egypt may have been a pain to Western plans. But at least it might have come into existence somewhat organically, and with even a begrudging debt of gratitude to the superpower that facilitated it. Now we're on the brink of a revolution that owes it considerably less.

So say what you like about this popular uprising in Egypt. Say you find it exhilarating, even though there is no guarantee it will deliver the Egyptians something less repressive than what they have (and revolutions often achieve the opposite). Say, furrowed brow and all, that this looks like an Islamist revolution manipulated by the menacing Muslim Brotherhood even though all evidence at this stage points to the contrary. Such lazy quips I can abide. They do, after all, reflect aspirations and concerns that are not entirely specious.

But whatever you say, don't say you never saw this coming. Don't say that Western powers, particularly the United States, have any reason to have been caught off guard by these developments. If there are surprises here, they are matters only of precise timing. What we are witnessing now is the inevitable outcome of a misguided foreign policy that assumed our interests in the region could be served simply by keeping a dictatorial lid on it. Can we not see, in our much trumpeted age of digital grass-roots activism, that this calculus - which was always dubious in any event - is now less true than it ever was?