What will matter most in the long run is that the popular rising in Egypt, even more than the earlier one in Tunisia, changes the way we must look at the world. What T. S. Kuhn might have called the paradigm of world events. (You will remember his Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) This shift feels as momentous as the shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican way of perceiving the universe.
Yesterday, or last week, people were still willing to believe that East and West were irreconcilable, that principles of democracy were unimaginable in Muslim societies, that the alternative to tight police control of the Muslim population would be a turn to Muslim extremists, sharia law and the rest of it, with mass popular support. There's been plenty of evidence against this view all along, but it was a convenient view to many western politicians blaming Asian or North African immigrants for local woes (France and Holland most notably) or seeking to justify pointless but terribly expensive wars.
Of course there are some people still holding to that view, but it's going to be harder to sustain than in an earlier age when the Church could command Galileo to deny that the earth moved. Thanks to the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians of all ages and classes waging their energetic but peaceful demonstration in Tahrir Square, we know it just isn't so. The "clash of civilizations" is not between East and West, or between Islam and Christianity, but between authoritarianism and free thought, free exploration, free invention. Give the people a chance — no, that's wrong, nobody gives the people anything. Let's say, when the people seize the chance to meet one another, try out new ideas or ideas borrowed from elsewhere but new to them, they can get along. Copts and Muslims and Armenian Orthodox and agnostics and atheists. And they can figure out how to keep order without the “help” of the police, like protecting the archaeological museum, or cleaning the street, or directing traffic, or taking care of their wounded.
Liberating the energies of the Egyptian people will go far to liberating all the peoples of the region. And it will mean the death of Al Qaeda, which is nourished by fear, hate, and the impossibility of other options.
Wouldn't Naguib Mahfouz be proud!