A popular uprising brings fear and hope. When it happens in a place as pivotal to the world as Egypt is, the conflicting responses of fear and hope are everywhere. Egypt is the metropolitan centre of the Arab region, its cultural and educational capital. Its ancient monuments give it a global mystique and its modern leadership has been a quiet voice of moderation in Muslim politics and of compromise in the Middle East.

But President Hosni Mubarak, like Anwar Sadat, the assassinated peacemaker he replaced, has never been a popular figure. They were military leaders of their time, educated, rational, modern and secular in their pursuit of national development. Leaders of their stamp were not democrats. They distrusted the religious populism of the street and ensured that elections would have their desired result.

Mubarak has ruled since 1981, unrivalled and with no likely successor. For all his civilised modernisation, the condition of the people appears to have hardly improved. Too many Egyptians still live in poverty and squalor. But as usual it is not the poor that appear to be leading the uprising of the past week. The educated are at the forefront, students, many of whom may face unemployment, but their aims may go far beyond jobs.

They have forced Mubarak, now 82, to announce he will not seek re-election, to appoint a Vice-President for the first time and install a new Prime Minister and Cabinet. All of that has not assuaged the crowds in the streets calling for him to go.

By all accounts, the religious party in Egypt's politics, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not leading this uprising. But the students, who have been joined in the streets by people of all descriptions, are almost certain to be more assertively Islamic than the regime they are trying to topple.

There seems a real risk that the peace treaty Sadat made with Israel 30 years ago will be a victim of Mubarak's departure. It was the act of realistic military leaders who had tasted defeat in the 1973 war with Israel but it was deeply embarrassing to many educated young Egyptians at the time it was signed and has been ever since.

It has put Mubarak increasingly out of step with elected Arab governments such as Hamas in Gaza, to the point that he closed Egypt's supply lines to the Palestinian territory during Israel's last assault on Hamas.

Israel has not helped moderates such as Mubarak with its failure to make similar agreements with all its neighbours and, more recently, its refusal to stop its unsanctioned settlers, who continue to drive Palestinians from their homes and villages on the West Bank.

Israel has much to fear from the Egyptian insurrection. Memories of the 1979 Iranian revolution are still fresh and the religious regime it installed continues to haunt Israel more than any other. Yet Iran is not Arab, does not share a border with Israel and has much less sway in the region than Egypt could have.

Fear is a natural international response, but hope is possible too. The uprising, triggered by a similar and successful revolt in neighbouring Tunisia, could be the beginning of a wave that might change the Middle East. It might not be the outbreak of electoral democracy that George W. Bush hoped to trigger by toppling Saddam Hussein but it could be a genuine assertion of popular will.

The result might be a triumph for Islamic parties, as it has been in most elections since the Iraq invasion, but if that is the popular Arab will it is better that the world learns to deal with it. Autocrats can last a long time in the Middle East but they cannot point a way to the future. Their power is artificial and ultimately unreliable. It takes a popular movement to make permanent change and genuine progress. That is the hope.