It is self-evidently democratic. To be sure, other factors, above all the socio-economic, greatly fuelled it, but the concentration on this single aspect of it, the virtual absence of other factional or ideological slogans has been striking. Indeed, so striking that, some now say, this emergence of democracy as an ideal and politically mobilising force amounts to nothing less than a "third way" in modern Arab history. The first was nationalism, nourished by the experience of European colonial rule and all its works, from the initial great carve-up of the "Arab nation" to the creation of Israel, and the west's subsequent, continued will to dominate and shape the region. The second, which only achieved real power in non-Arab Iran, was "political Islam", nourished by the failure of nationalism.
And it is doubly revolutionary. First, in the very conduct of the revolution itself, and the sheer novelty and creativity of the educated and widely apolitical youth who, with the internet as their tool, kindled it. Second, and more conventionally, in the depth, scale and suddenness of the transformation in a vast existing order that it seems manifestly bound to wreak.
Arab, yes – but not in the sense of the Arabs going their own away again. Quite the reverse. No other such geopolitical ensemble has so long boasted such a collection of dinosaurs, such inveterate survivors from an earlier, totalitarian era; no other has so completely missed out on the waves of "people's power" that swept away the Soviet empire and despotisms in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In rallying at last to this now universal, but essentially western value called democracy, they are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.
If it was in Tunis that the celebrated "Arab street" first moved, the country in which – apart from their own – Arabs everywhere immediately hoped that it would move next was Egypt. That would amount to a virtual guarantee that it would eventually come to them all. For, most pivotal, populous and prestigious of Arab states, Egypt was always a model, sometimes a great agent of change, for the whole region. It was during the nationalist era, after President Nasser's overthrow of the monarchy in 1952, that it most spectacularly played that role. But in a quieter, longer-term fashion, it was also the chief progenitor, through the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the "political Islam" we know today, including – in both the theoretical basis as well as substantially in personnel – the global jihad and al-Qaida that were to become its ultimate, deviant and fanatical descendants.
And, sure enough, Egypt's "street" did swiftly move, and in nothing like the wild and violent manner that the image of the street in action has always tends to conjure up in anxious minds. As a broad and manifestly authentic expression of the people's will, it accomplished the first, crucial stage of what surely ranks as one of the most exemplary, civilised uprisings in history. The Egyptians feel themselves reborn, the Arab world once more holds Egypt, "mother of the world", in the highest esteem. And finally – after much artful equivocation as they waited to see whether the pharaoh, for 30 years the very cornerstone of their Middle East, had actually fallen – President Obama and others bestowed on them the unstinting official tributes of the west.
These plaudits raise the great question: if the Arabs are now rejoining the world what does it mean for the world? Will the adoption of a fundamental western value make it necessarily receptive to western policies or prescriptions? Probably not. Democracy itself, let alone Arab resentment over the west's long record of upholding the old, despotic order, will militate against that.
Practically speaking, the Arabs' "third way" only means that democracy, a political neutral concept in itself, will henceforth serve as their gateway for the conduct of their politics. It doesn't mean supplanting the first two ways. For the politics of those cannot but persist into the third. Islamism, the west's great bugbear, will still be there. A democratic order will find it impossible, on its own or any else's behalf, to do what Nasser once did in the despotic one, execute some Muslim Brotherhood leaders and harshly suppress their followers. It is bound to accommodate them, openly and electorally ceding to them their true weight in Arab affairs, along with that of all other movements in competition with them.
Nationalism, once the other great western bugbear, will be one of these, and very probably, given the Brotherhood's less than glorious role in the uprising, it will regain some of the ground it seriously began losing to the Islamists after the shattering Arab defeat of 1967.
A key, perhaps the key, element in America's now sorely stricken Middle East strategies has always been about the Arab-Israeli conflict. With Islamism and nationalism, not to mention other political forces, freely expressing themselves, an Egyptian democracy will not, cannot, continue to play the role – utterly subservient, if not frankly treasonable, in many Arab eyes – that Mubarak did on behalf of the US and Israel. How significant this particular Egyptian-American divergence becomes remains to be seen. But most Israelis already see it as a calamity in the making, with the ironic consequence that the self-styled "only democracy in the Middle East" now leads the field in proclaiming that democracy should never have been for the Arabs.
But most regimes are candidates. Among the few likely exceptions, perhaps the most important, and certainly the most apt, is Lebanon, to which I have now returned. Ever turbulent, ever the most of exposed of Arabs to the consequences of what other Arabs do, it might logically seem destined to be among the first to go. But it isn't – mainly because, alone in the region, it has always been a democracy of sorts.