Paul Greenberg

At last conflicting reports, Hosni Mubarak was suspended somewhere between life and death, just as the Egyptian dictator's last precarious year has been spent somewhere between justice and only political justice. Egypt itself still hangs somewhere between revolution and whatever comes afterward -- probably more suspense, upheaval and uncertainty. Which will not end with Hosni Mubarak's eventual departure from this vale of tears.

In the meantime, Egypt waits and waits. Much as Spaniards once did as their dictator lingered and lingered. For the longest time, there was no need to change the standing headline out of Spain: "Francisco Franco still dying."

Now it is Egypt's turn to wait. Found guilty by his judges not of any specific crimes on the books but of failing to stop the killing of others as his regime fell, Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to prison for whatever remains of his uncertain life. The verdict was neither pure politics nor pure law, which tends to happen when terrible wrongs are committed but existent law seems incapable of dealing with the sheer extent of them.

See the verdicts handed down at the Nuremberg Trials at the end of the Second World War, which resulted in sentences even unto death for the Nazi defendants. Some called it justice, yet those closely watched, precedent-setting trials also produced the spectacle of Soviet generals sitting in judgment on war crimes -- as representatives of the regime that had committed the Katyn Forest massacre and who knows how many others.

It seems Comrade Stalin did not want a Polish elite to get in the way of his rule over Poland after the war, so he simply had Poland's officers corps wiped out and blamed it on the Nazis, who were fully capable of such a deed. And for years, till the truth could no longer be denied, the usual dupes swallowed that Communist line.

So, too, do good and evil mix in the judgments handed down in Hosni Mubarak's convoluted case. What do you do with a disgraced leader who has been both patriot and tyrant, as difficult as it is for Americans to get our minds around such a concept, patriotism and freedom being so inextricably mixed here.

Yet it is a familiar phenomenon in European history. The Europeans of the early 19th century handled such matters more deftly. Napoleon Bonaparte, liberator and dictator, was not executed but confined to an island -- first Elba and, when he refused to stay put, to more remote St. Helena to die in welcome obscurity after his wars and depredations. So the continent's history could continue without his constant interruptions and eruptions.

There were statesmen then, like Prince Metterrnich, who understood that peace and liberty will prove only passing things unless they are combined with order and security. No such statesman has yet emerged in Egypt -- or its more restive neighbors, and the sad, uncertain spectacle that now unfolds in Cairo may be repeated soon enough in Syria, where the latest Assad awaits his rendezvous with justice -- or some semblance thereof. For now all is in suspension in the uneasy Middle East.

To quote a protester at still another rally in Tahrir Square this week: "They say Mubarak really died. Maybe this time it is true." Or maybe not. He's been in that same uncertain limbo between life and death, power and disgrace, law and only vengeance for a year now, and the vigil continues -- not just for Hosni Mubarak but for Egyptian democracy. Will it live or die, or not quite one or the other?

"It is not possible," complained another protester in the square, "to have a revolution and then have military rule and a president with no authority." It's not only possible, but it's been the classic pattern in Europe since the French Revolution set it, going from national assembly to reign of terror to a directorate soon enough superseded by a Bonaparte.

The pattern was only extended and repeated on a far greater and more horrific scale by the Bolshevik revolution that gave the world an Evil Empire for most of a century. The cruel cycle still spins, and there is no sign of its stopping in Egypt. Or elsewhere as the Arab Spring turns to harsh winter.

The moral of the story -- for now: Not all revolutions turn out as fortunately, or maybe the more apt word would be Providentially, as this country's, which combined the forces of liberty and order, having each reinforce the other. Call it statesmanship or a miracle, but the combination has been the hallmark of America's happy history.

The Fourth is just around the corner. Americans would do well to look on events in Egypt, and this year truly celebrate what has been rightly called American exceptionalism.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.