Directionless protester power clears a path for the ruthless

Protesters may bring down dictators but the prize of power belongs to those who have clear goals and a ruthless drive to control.

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Last week the Yemeni political activist and joint recipient of the Nobel peace prize, Tawakkol Karman, was in London, talking to packed audiences. They wanted to hear how this feminist mother of three in strict hijab had fired up her country's still unfinished revolution. In the presence of this inspiring woman, it seemed that the global protest movement had turned the world upside down and was shaking out all its despots.

One man asked her: "When you become president, will you surprise Yemen and the world by having a 50-50 split between women and men in power?"

"I don't believe in that," the Nobel laureate shot back, and paused for dramatic effect. "Women have to be more than 50 per cent." Loud applause.

Only two days before, Time had named as its person of the year "The protester". Explaining its choice, the magazine wrote: "They literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change."

There is no doubt that protesters, armed with the new technologies and the reach of social media, do indeed embody the idea of change. But to what extent can they actually achieve change and impose a new agenda on their countries? A clear-eyed look at the facts shows that the limits to their success are more apparent than their triumphs.

This is not to denigrate the courage, persistence, originality and technological savvy of the protesters. There are more and more young men and women ready to martyr themselves for a cause.

But a look at protest camps from Cairo to London suggests that they are either losing the mainstream or have failed to grasp it at all. In Cairo, the occupation of Tahrir Square has been abandoned by the Islamic parties, leaving a dwindling hard core of protesters. The brutal stripping of a young woman protester last weekend could have happened months ago. But it exemplifies the shift in Tahrir Square from a place of national solidarity to a battleground where no one is safe.

Thanks to the protesters' lack of organised leadership or ideology, they have been outmanoeuvred by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists who are set to win a majority in the elections for a new parliament. This result was predictable, given how deeply entrenched the Brotherhood are in Egyptian society, but the protesters missed a trick by failing to create a party with nationwide appeal or draw up their own constitution.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, protesters have been crushed in Bahrain, and Syria is heading for civil war. Libya, having been freed from the Qaddafi tyranny, is heading towards a tribal and regional division of the spoils of oil wealth, which at least is some improvement on the past.

Only in Tunisia has the protest movement spawned a parliament that seems to enjoy legitimacy and a mandate to move the country forward.

Looking at the "Occupy" protests in Europe and the US, they have got their message across. Everyone is talking of the 1 per cent (bankers, mainly) impoverishing the 99 per cent. But protesters are being slowly moved off from the city centres.

Their supporters say that it is unfair to criticise them for failing to gain political traction. In the words of Jamie Kelsey-Fry of The New Internationalistmagazine, it's about mobilisation not results: "It's a new way of protest entirely where there are no leaders and no single issue. It is a forum for change and an initiative to allow all people from all walks of life to take part in shaping a better world for all."

This has caused confusion among those used to negotiating with a clearly defined adversary. Giles Fraser, the Church of England priest who has engaged with the protesters outside St Paul's Cathedral and resigned from his job rather than see them evicted, has characterised the protesters as "frustratingly democratic". Without leaders, he says admiringly, you have to engage with "the issues".

Issues, however, are a rather small part of politics, compared with leadership, ideology and making promises that the people feel will give them some benefit. Without these, the bourgeois revolutionaries who topple the dictator are likely to find themselves in the dustbin of history.

Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 wrested control of the revolution against the Shah from his exile in a Parisian suburb, thanks to his force of character and the inspiring new idea of an "Islamic republic". Vladimir Lenin distilled his promises to the Russian people into "Peace, Bread, Land" - three words that the majority could understand, even if the promise to the peasants of land ownership was a lie.

Protest without ideology appears to outsiders as more of a lifestyle choice than a political one. In London, New York and Cairo, the protesters appear as an amorphous bunch. If they were destitute farmers or sacked steel workers they would have their own brand which all could understand, even if they did not agree with them. This raises the question, who are you?

Without their own brand they will be given one by their enemies in the state media (in Egypt they are being called "foreign agents") or the commercial media in Europe and the US.

There is no denying that the world changed in 2011, and that political protest became embedded in cultures which were previously dominated by fear or apathy.

The camera phone and the internet exposed the fraudulence of the Russian parliamentary elections, forcing the authorities - wisely - to allow mass demonstrations in Moscow. Independent sources of news are available for the first time to everybody. Governments all over the world are losing control of the news agenda, and this is making their task harder.

But none of this subverts the old law of politics, which is that the ruthless gain power. Protest camps may topple a dictator, but the prize of power belongs to those who have clear goals and inspiring leadership. The rest, alas, is just talk.

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