In a turbulent Middle East, 2012 continued the rise of the citizen

This past year saw the mushrooming of new political forces, with untested leaders and uncertain policies

Pep Montserrat for The National
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Following the transformational year of 2011 in the Middle East, there was little chance of 2012 repeating the experience. In 2011, Arab peoples threw out four dictators with a combined total of 128 years of ruthless, parasitical domination in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.

The surviving regimes shuddered in fear. Fighting for its survival, the regime of Bashar Al Assad in Syria demonstrated more tenacity, brutality and ruthlessness than the others put together. Its future is one of a slow painful death, a cancer that may yet destroy its weakened host, Syria itself.

The remaining hopes for an expanded "Arab Spring" and further democratic transition are linked to the fate of Damascus.

As it turned out, this year was akin to the hangover after the party the night before, meriting a more sober realistic assessment of the possibilities and dangers.

The birth of the Arab citizen is a slow, fluid process. But from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf citizens want to be heard and feel confident about speaking out and taking action. To achieve this, of course, means a new form of pluralistic governance, including elections, free media, rule of law and a flourishing civil society.

Yet just as important for hopes of lasting change is the development of genuine political opposition forces that understand the practice of peaceful, constructive opposition within a democratic system. This is one of the least developed aspects of political life in the Arab world, where distrust of political systems has meant opposition tends to take the form of boycotts, demonstrations and even violence.

Arab uprisings have created great fear and uncertainty for all- a natural consequence of what were monumental, tectonic shifts in politics that have redefined the Arab world, changed alliances, threatened, disrupted and destroyed old elites, changed centres of power and unleashed public opinion, hitherto a sleeping and disparaged giant.

There are new political forces mushrooming, with untested political leaders, inexperienced in regional tensions and diplomacy.

The change is breathtaking and unnerving. The fossilised regimes had brought a leaden hand of certainty to life, whereas states in transition bask in the uncertainty of every conceivable political, economic and social outcome. Egypt could slowly become truly democratic, quickly Islamic or revert to a new despotism as ugly as the Mubarak era. For the moment, Egypt's fate is largely in the hands of Egyptians and not those of a dictator, his few chosen cronies or foreign powers.

In all the transition states, it is remarkable how little power one individual holds, with even President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt beholden to senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood and a sceptical electorate. It is striking how few central, pivotal, individual figures there have been in the transitions. There are no standout individual revolutionary leaders along the lines of Lech Walesa or Nelson Mandela.

The most inspiring figures have been those who died standing up for their rights: Mohammad Bouazizi in Tunisia and Khalid Said in Egypt.

At the ballot box, electorates have had little time for political celebrities, preferring lesser-known figures. The era of Qaddafi-like grandstanding is no longer in vogue. If there was one point of agreement on the 2012 Egyptian elections it was that the final two contenders, Mr Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, were truly uncharismatic. One quality that endeared many to choose Moaz Al Khatib as the new leader of the Syrian National Coalition was his apparent lack of personal ambition. What this means for nascent political forces is that it is not so much charismatic leaders that matter as organisational strength and an inclusive internal democratic structure.

The standout trend of this year has to be the continued political and electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood. I know of no political observer, whether Arab or not, who predicted three years ago that Egypt, the Arab world's most populous state, would have a fairly elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood still dominates the external Syrian opposition and Hamas's political fortunes are on the rise. This raises the question of whether, for many states, dominant political Islam is the only alternative to the past dictatorships.

The Muslim Brotherhood groups are having their first skirmishes with the responsibilities of power. The next 12 months may determine if their power will be sustained or whether hopes will be dashed on the hard reality of government. Many of the drivers of the Arab uprisings remain - political exclusion, corruption, economic inequality and youth unemployment that was in 2009 double the global average. More than 40 per cent of Egyptians have to struggle to survive on US$2 (Dh7) or less a day. Youth unemployment in Tunisia has risen to an even more alarming 42 per cent. The elected governments in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia may fare no better than their unelected predecessors. This makes the roles of opposition-in-waiting even more vital.

If there is to be a challenge to the two dominant forces - the existing regimes and their followers, and political Islam - then liberal, leftists and secular forces will have to form cohesive, coherent and credible alternatives.

So far in Egypt and Tunisia, although politically the opposition should be strong, in reality these groups have struggled to unite and escape from the shadows of regimes that had co-opted the secular political space. There is no shortages of political parties - 101 were created in Tunisia alone and more than 130 in Libya - but few are well-formed political machines with defined programmes.

The reality is that for decades the Arab world has only known all-powerful authorities and regimes, faced by quisling or violent opposition forces. There is little history of opposition, political parties that are adept at holding a government to account but also working with them in the national interest. Politics has been a win-lose process, where consensual compromise is unheard of. This winner-takes-all approach leads to further polarisation, not a strategic national approach that has buy-in from all the key power groups. It also means that to be in opposition is to be seen as weak and impotent.

To compete, successful opposition parties will require five key ingredients. Firstly, they will need the ability to unite on ideological bases, build alliances, create consensus and leave aside any bitter personal rivalries. Secondly, they will need to be inclusive, tapping into sections of society that other forces may fail to win over, not least women and the youth. For this, they will require sophisticated mechanisms to listen to and answer the real grassroots needs of the electorates.

Thirdly, they will need to adopt convincing plans to answer the major challenges that confront these states.

Fourthly, they need to be able to rival the political and social organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood groups, building a political machine to turn theoretical support into hard votes. In Egypt, there is talk of the National Salvation Front uniting to provide this alternative. These forces also need to find their "mosques", venues where not only politics can be debated and practised but also community services delivered.

Finally, such groups will need to secure the sort of funding necessary without having to rely heavily on well-endowed US and European democracy foundations.

Strong, mature opposition forces are a powerful check on power and an insurance against government complacency and arrogance. The next step for the transition states is to not just see government and opposition parties calmly swap places via the ballot box, but working together in their national interests.

Their success next year and beyond will be a vital inspiration for others and an important step on the road to the birth of real Arab citizenship.

Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding