Holed up in Sharm el-Sheikh, Hosni Mubarak is not the only one to be taken by surprise at the strength, anger, and speed of the January 25 uprising. The US alliance and its tame punditocracy — that rag-tag bunch of neo-cons, Western civ suprematists and desperate ex-leftists — have also had trouble coming to terms with the destabilisation of one of the US’s major allies and clients.

Having spent the past decade talking incessantly about the democratisation of the Middle East, throwing off old structures, etc, etc, the spectacle of a genuine mass uprising, unaided and unsupported by external powers, left them speechless. Only after the Egyptian populace had been defying curfews, beatings and worse for two days, did they come out with a determined and concerted statement of … “um”.

Um, or even yikes. Apparently there are revolutions and revolutions. People on the streets of Tehran are brave champions, those in Cairo are on probation.

Take the National Review, the centre of US neo-con commentary. The publication limited itself to reportage and vague thinkings-aloud for a couple of days, before finally coming out with an ex-cathedra statement:

“Mubarak Should Go — But Not Yet”.

The article itself expressed the terminal confusion in which the neo-con “Middle East democratisation” argument now finds itself. Targeting the Obama Administration for their statements:

“The Administration’s initial reaction to the outbreak of protests was shamefully tepid.”

While also concluding:

“To the extent we can, though, we should support Mubarak so long as he agrees to open Egypt’s political system …”

This was a day or two before Mubarak appointed his former intelligence chief as vice-president, as a response to the protestors’ demands, so that’s going well.

Elsewhere on the National Review roll-call, they’re finding a sudden old-style conservatism for self-interested realpolitik, rather than the Western triumphalism that has fuelled much of the Past decade’s adventure.

In The Weekly Standard, Lee Smith noted that:

“It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms.”

And as always, the blue riband went to Tony Blair, who told BBC Radio 4 that change should occur in “an orderly fashion”. Iraq 2003-present, for example.

In The Australian, the ever-reliable David Burchell argued that fashionable Westerners were in love with crowd action — utterly unlike the cheering on of the Iranian protests by people such as D.Burchell, for example.

The sudden nervousness of the neo-con burnouts is unsurprising. Though talk of the stagnation and decay of the Arab world was a common justification for the attacks on Iraq — a sort of jump-start — US and UK support for Mubarak has been predicated on the guarantee that stagnation was exactly what he would provide.

Mubarak’s job has been to keep Egypt frozen in the state it was when Anwar Sadat was assassinated — in treaty with Israel, controlling the Gaza border, and frustrating any attempt by Islamists to gain power, electorally or otherwise.

Mubarak was initially put in place to frustrate pan-Arabism and Marxism.

The only organised opposition now standing is the Muslim Brotherhood, the original political Islamist organisation. Egypt’s uprising means that the neo-cons, the War Party, the burnouts, call ’em what you will, are shown to be crucially against a genuine mass popular uprising — not only because it threatens a crucial territory and population mass whose control was strategically essential, but also because it shows the process of US regime change — bomb the place, allow it to be wrecked and then drop in a puppet as leader — to be the opposite of genuine popular uprising.

Indeed, Egypt is a political problem for the neo-cons with much wider implications. The rhetorical focus of the war party has always been on freedom as exclusively expressed by liberal political institutions — everyone was presumed to “yearn for” a party political system, etc, etc, regardless of whether they and their families had food, shelter, basic public safety, etc.

The disaster of Iraq demonstrated that the opposite was the case. Mubarak and Al-Badi remained undisturbed so long as everyday life could chug along, even in a poverty that most of us would regard as pretty dire. But for the past two years, the Arab world has suffered from the consequences of rising food prices, spiked by speculation on the commodities market.

The Tunisian revolt appears to have begun when a food seller, Mohamed Bouazazi had his cart and the fruit and vegetables on it confiscated, and then set himself on fire in rage and despair. Was that protest at the repression of free speech, or assembly? No, it was at the final straw in being refused the chance to live at all, the deprival of the very means of life. The suicidal nature of the protest made sense as a response to the total indifference of the state and the global market, working in concert — against their message that Bouazazi’s — and the whole population’s — only role was to go away and die.

Hunger per se, rarely brings people out onto the street — but the fundamental lack of recognition that goes with hunger does, the sense that the only way of coming back from this nothingness is a total rejection and the acceptance of the risk of death — a death that has become meaningful again. Once such forces are set in train, they have a power, and a legitimacy, beyond just about everything else.

The vital role that recognition and respect play in all this also suggests the role that new media, and especially WikiLeaks, may have played in the whole process kicking off. Some commentators have rejected any notion that the exposure of Arab ruling class decadence, and its itemisation in US cables, may have played any role in one man’s immolation engulfing a whole region.

But given that the material played across Arab online media for weeks before the Tunisian explosion, it seems hard to believe that it played no role. Indeed, what has made this revolt so powerful is that it was coming wholly neither from the most concrete level of the gut and hunger, nor from the most abstract level of online media, and questions of secrecy and access.

It came from both together — each end of life reinforcing with the other, millions standing up as humans who demand respect and autonomy — and food in the belly, a basic guarantee that one will not be thrown perpetually into the animal state of existence, in a world of overwhelming wealth.

That is true revolt, not the pissy stage-managed versions that have been sold to us as a series of colour-coded designer insurrections over recent years. And that in turn is why the pseudo-liberationists — are so quick to come out against it.

This episode may be over tomorrow, with thousands dead. But even so, it will return. And it may prevail now, in days, and roll on — with consequences we can’t begin to foretell, good and bad. If the possibility of the latter turns you back towards Mubarak, then you were never interested in human liberation in the first place.