2011 has been a remarkable year. For far too long, the Arab world seemed immune to the changes sweeping the rest of the world. This year, finally, the peoples of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt managed to throw off the yokes of oppressive regimes. For those in other countries, the struggle continues.

The “Arab Spring” also showed that, despite years of suppression and oppression, these countries continue to have a strong and vibrant Islamic identity. In the two countries that have had free and fair elections, Islamic movements garnered a greater share of the vote than, say, our present elected government. In both Egypt and Tunisia, the Islamist parties have won more votes than the next three or four parties put together. Libya is unlikely to prove any different.

Both Ennahda in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt have stated very clearly that their priorities are to improve the economic lot of their respective peoples and establish the rule of law. For others, however, who are coming into the world of governance with an Islamic ideology, the priority seems to be to ensure the proper practice of Islam in their respective societies.

So, what should it be? In others words, from an authentic Islamic understanding, what should the priority be for those who, at long last, seem to be in a position to influence the ship of government?

I feel very strongly about this one. As a young person growing up, one of the most important lessons I was taught was that the world moves according to certain basic principles. If you want to succeed, you have to work hard; if you want to pass an examination, you must study. In short, if you want a result, you must understand what it is that can help bring about this result. Merely wishing something to be does not make it so. Doing the “wrong thing” does not help bring about the desired result anymore than doing nothing at all.

So, what is the right thing today? I would argue that there are three essential priorities for any Islamic movement in the Arab world today: Establish a society based on the rule of law and respect for institutions of governance; enshrine personal and societal freedoms and improve the participation in society of all segments of society but more so the dispossessed and underprivileged.

In his reading of the life of the Prophet peace be upon him, Dr Al-Buti reflects on the Divine wisdom of the message of Islam being revealed to Arabs. He concludes that Arabs at the time were free of oppressive rule, unlike the Romans, Byzantines and Persians. He extrapolates from the wandering of the Jews in the Sinai after the exodus to make the same point. The generation of Israelites that grew up in the shadow of the Pharaoh could not build a nation – and hence it was necessary for a free people to grow up in the wandering. Similarly, the Arabs, free, though unruly, were more likely to shoulder the responsibility of the new message.

Mandela expressed a similar idea eloquently a few decades a go: Only free men can negotiate. Similarly, only free people (men and women) can believe. Only a free people can build civilisations. And so, if the Islamic movements are to make a long lasting contribution today, it will be to restore societies in which people are free. Like the pre-Islamic Arab society, freedom can be associated with unruliness. Yet the price of restricting freedom in order to achieve order is a slide back into the authoritarianism that has been emblematic of Muslim societies for far too long in the recent past.

On the second issue – the rule of law and respect for institutions of governance: Many Islamist leaders seem to suggest that there is a magic formula that will evolve on its own once an Islamic “state” is established. This simplistic approach tends to be more common in the so-called salafi camp, but it is not entirely absent from mainstream groups either. This simplistic view ignores the wealth of human experiences to date that tell us that men and power, once joined, are hard to separate.

A new culture of respect for institutions that operationalize effective checks and balances must be a priority. Appealing to people’s religious faith and sense of justice and fairness is simply not enough. Reliance on “wise leadership” is not enough. Although it has not always resulted in the best government, the framers of the American Constitution understood this point well. Checks and balances must be instituted to ensure that good government continues.

Finally, for far too long, leaders in the Middle East have conditioned people to take a back seat and simply passively follow. Changing this requires a monumental effort. An active citizenry makes the job of a government much harder and it is tempting to try to quell dissent. That would be a mistake even if dissent is quelled using entirely legal means.  I was heartened by a recent interview with the General Guide of the Egyptian MB in which he stressed that, in the process of framing the new Egyptian Constitution, the framers must tour the entire country and consult widely.

Today, the Arab world needs freedom, rule of law and engagement. The Islamic movement can and should champion these three goals explicitly