From climate change to the US presidential elections, al-Qaeda provides a running commentary on world affairs. It has opined freely on the global economic crisis and on the complexities of Pakistan's politics. When Barack Obama visited Egypt in 2009, Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command, lambasted the US President and the Egyptians who welcomed him. But what of now? Millions of Egyptians have achieved in 18 days what al-Qaeda has failed to do through mass killings for more than two decades: they have taken to the streets and overthrown the Mubarak regime, which imprisoned and tortured al-Zawahiri. Worse still for al-Qaeda, the protesters demanded what it opposes: freedom and democracy. Despite all this, al-Qaeda is silent.
In a 34-minute videotape issued last Friday, al-Zawahiri makes no mention of the protests or of Mubarak's fall beyond vague references to "what happened and happens in Egypt". He very intentionally avoided criticising the protesters because al-Qaeda is desperate to be liked by a new generation of Arabs. Al-Zawahiri is, essentially, flirting with the Arab street, offering "joy" and "hope" in al-Qaeda.
But we mustn't interpret al-Qaeda's reticence as a sign of irrelevance. It will interject, on its own terms, in its own time and in its own bloody language. It will do so because Egypt is special to al-Qaeda.