Last year, revolutions led to political changes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. So what's next for the Middle East in 2012?
Last year, revolutions led to political changes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. So what's next for the Middle East in 2012? - 

Tess Vigeland: This week we've been running a series of commentaries to mark the start of the new year, predicting the 2012 headlines that you'll be talking about. But today we're taking a step back to a story that dominated the news in 2011.

Commentator Reza Aslan says the Arab Spring isn't finished quite yet.

Reza Aslan: 2011 served as a reminder to us all that no regime can stand up to the will of a people united in the cause of freedom and democracy. In the span of a year, dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya fell, and significant political reform was forced upon the governments of Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. Now, as the Arab Spring enters a new year -- with revolutions still smoldering in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond -- there's one question we should ask: Can religiously inspired parties that have come to political prominence in the aftermath of these popular uprisings transform themselves into responsible members of democratic governments?

Pundits and politicians are already ringing the alarm bells. The common refrain you hear in the US: The Middle East is being overrun with religious radicals bent on oppressing women and destroying Israel.  That is nonsense, of course.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that political Islam will be a force in the new, democratic Middle East. And that is a good thing. It is time for these religious parties to stop hiding in the mosque and instead be forced to compete openly in the marketplace of ideas for the votes of a free electorate. After all, what could be more important to a burgeoning democracy than an open debate about the role of religion in society? A few months ago, such talk would have landed you in prison. Today, it is part of the vibrant political debate that is taking place all over the Middle East.

It remains to be seen whether the newly elected Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia will moderate their ideologies and focus on the immediate demands of the people who voted them into office. But this much is certain: If they do not -- if they spend their time railing about the West instead of creating jobs for the people -- they'll be booted out of office just as quickly as they were voted in.

That's how democracies work. And whether we like it or not, for the first time in decades, neither the aging autocrats in the region nor their American backers have anything to say about it.

Vigeland: Reza Aslan is the author of "No God but God." Got a comment?  Write to us.

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