Editor's note: CNN Contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H. W. Bush.
(CNN) -- As we watch the unfolding protests in Egypt, as many of us look forward to a change in a country -- in a region -- too accustomed to dictatorship and oppression, many of us ask if we are seeing a revolution. As we ask, and as many of us hope, we must also remember that many revolutions end in a crisis and reign of terror worse than the regime they overthrew.
Any serious study of history reveals this -- see Crane Brinton's "Anatomy of Revolution" or the elections in the Palestinian territories five years ago that hoisted Hamas to power in Gaza. Or look at Iran in 1979.
From what we see, the administration's reluctance to speak clearly for one side or the other in Egypt is probably the best we can do, lest we end up endorsing the worst side in Egypt over and against a bad side.
But let us not have any illusions that the government in Egypt is not bad. Freedom House has scored Egypt as having the second-to-worst possible ratings for political rights and the third-from-worst possible ratings for civil liberties. And, for too long, many American leaders -- and American tourists and businessmen -- have ignored this repression, papered over it, turned a blind eye toward it.
The current U.S. administration did not always have it right in Egypt. I believe it was a mistake for President Obama to go to Egypt in 2009 and deliver a major address to the Muslim world under the sponsorship of Al-Azhar University there. Al-Azhar is one of the most prominent schools of higher education for Sunni Islam, and it is steeped in radicalism.
It is from Al-Azhar that the Blind Sheikh and the Muslim Brotherhood's Yusuf al-Qaradawi earned their degrees. Al-Azhar does not allow Coptic Christians to enroll. As Zuhdi Jasser of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy put it at the time: Al-Azhar "is a primary example of an Islamist institution which is one of the world's primary sources of supremacist Islamist and Salafist ideology." Jasser had urged, ahead of Obama's speech, that "it is imperative that the United States openly expose the perils of political Islam taught and metastasized around the world from that institution and others like it." Obama praised Al-Azhar.
Nor did the current administration get it right the last time there was a people's revolt in the Muslim world; namely, in Iran. There, in 2009, there was a very real chance of democratic regime change, against a mullahcracy, and the president's stated position was that the United States would not "meddle." The flowering change there was summarily crushed.
Had our president been more outspoken on behalf of the U.S. military backing up democracy in the Middle East, rather than critical of it, as he was in Iraq; had he been more sympathetic to democratic reform rather than realpolitic, as he was in Iran, he would be on stronger footing now. He would have more moral authority regarding our policy in and toward Egypt today, and he could have been an inspiration to true, non-Islamist, democratic reformers there.
Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got this issue in 2005 when she went to Egypt and criticized the regime but also stated: "When we talk about democracy ... we are referring to governments that protect certain basic rights for all their citizens -- among these, the right to speak freely. The right to associate. The right to worship as you wish. The freedom to educate your children -- boys and girls. And freedom from the midnight knock of the secret police."
Right now, however, the choice seems to once again be between a tough autocracy that is embarrassing to any rational notion of human rights and a Muslim Brotherhood that respects little outside its own definition of Islam and is even less tolerable to the stability of the region and our relations in the Middle East.
For too long, too many (in both parties here) have thought "the peoples of the Middle East [were] somehow beyond the reach of liberty," to quote George W. Bush's criticism of the formulation. But as many slowly come to realize that the arc of freedom deserves to be built in the Middle East as well, the most important question will be, as professor Jeane Kirkpatrick formulated it, not just who governs next, but how will the government be organized. In short: We might all wish for the "not-Mubarak" option, but we must equally be concerned with what the democratic institutions will be in Egypt -- if there are any -- in its next government.
Democracy, it has been said, is not one vote one time, but an ongoing process with institutions and sensibilities that allow for ever more democracy. And, especially in Egypt, it should be said, institutions and leaders who abjure notions of religious fundamentalism and terrorism.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.