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Predicting the Future of the Middle East -- The Easy Way

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The swift turn of events in the Middle East demands a certain amount of humility on the part of any so-called Middle East expert. Despite what anyone will tell you, no one predicted the rapid and dramatic overthrow of President Ben Ali of Tunisia, let alone the eventual departure of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

One analyst has even written that if he were asked a month ago which countries might have faced revolutions, Tunisia and Egypt would have been the last two he would have mentioned. Fareed Zakaria says of today's Middle East, "Anyone making predictions with confidence is being foolhardy."

But both are wrong. Predicting the most vulnerable regimes can actually be done with little difficulty. The impulsive forecasts of a widespread domino effect or even a dramatic overhaul of the entire region were unrealistic. Any regime change that might come will likely be limited only to a handful of countries. Here's why:

The purely authoritarian regimes of the region can loosely be classified into two categories: monarchies and republics. If you want to know who will be most likely to follow the path of Ben Ali and Mubarak, look at the republics. If you want to know who isn't going anywhere anytime soon, focus on the monarchies.

Middle Eastern monarchs will not fall, they will only fade away. The variety of monarchies in the region -- Morocco, Jordan and all the countries of the Gulf, minus Iraq and Iran -- have a firm, and in some cases, total grip on power. The most the population of these countries can expect is a slightly diminished role for their kings: parliamentary not presidential reform.

The King of Jordan seems to be toying with the idea of a more powerful prime minister. The few protesters in Morocco are clamoring not for the overthrow of their leader, but for what they call the "Spanish model": a popular and relevant king with a prime minister with true governing power. (The current situation in Morocco is the exact opposite.) There is even very quiet talk in some Gulf countries of perhaps easing the hereditary transition to power; not opening the monarchy itself, but perhaps augmenting the way any future kings are selected.

Why are these kings not worried? All maintain almost indelible cultural, and to different degrees religious, claims to power. All also have done a relatively better job at providing for their populations economically. (Oil wealth, of course, has made this easier in the case of the Gulf.)

The king of Morocco, for example, still holds the position of Commander of the Faithful, a title shared in recent times only by Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Morocco's jet-skiing king often reminds his subjects that his position is both God given and constitutionally anointed. Article 23 deems him "sacred and inviolable."

Moreover, not all the region's monarchs have put forth the charade of democratization. The protesters on the streets of Egypt and Tunisia have expressed deep frustration with freedom delayed, with years of false promises of political change. Yet, in certain cases, elections aren't even attempted in monarchies. As one Saudi journalist said recently of the citizens of his country: they "don't feel cheated because there are no elections." No member of the Saudi ruling family, for example, would even try to declare that his country is a democracy.

In other cases, most notably in Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait, elections do happen, but monarchs have tried to take ownership of the reform process and sell themselves as arbiters of liberalization.

That leaves us with the republics: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Algeria and Syria. The Tunisian president has already fallen. Hosni Mubarak of Egypt appears to be next (by September, if not before). The Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has already said that he will leave by 2013. And it may yet be earlier if protests continue. If any country were to follow suit, it would be Algeria, with its ailing 75-year-old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is well into his 13th year in power. (Indeed, the fear of a military coup has prompted Bouteflika to work to diminish the influence of the military over his presidency.)

Syria, in many ways, might fit better into the monarchy category. The Assad family's total cultural and political control over the country is almost unmatched by any fellow presidents in the region. But its sham elections, repeated repression, and hollow promises of reform also places it firmly in line with its fellow republics. So, the Assad regime too could fall, but perhaps not as quickly as the others.

Keep in mind that these five presidents received 89% (Tunisia), 88% (Egypt), 77% (Yemen), 90% (Algeria) and 97% (Syria) in their country's most recent "elections."

So, if you find yourself in Las Vegas or the casinos of Dubai, and you feel the need to bet on the next Middle Eastern leader to fall, remember this: if you are an authoritarian leader of a Middle Eastern country and the word "president" comes before your name, your days may be numbered. In other words, put your money on Yemen and Algeria.

Avi Spiegel, a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the University of San Diego, California. He is completing a book on the next generation of political Islam, based on his fieldwork among young activists from both legal and illegal Islamist movements.