Why Middle East Monarchies Might Hold On

In countries such as Jordan and Bahrain, kings may survive the region-wide turmoil that has toppled two presidents

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Arab monarchies were long thought to be more favorable to democratization than republics. Monarchs who enjoyed popular legitimacy and political security are on balance more willing to take risks, the argument went, gradually letting go of power and embarking on potentially destabilizing reforms. Since kings do not depend on elections to maintain power, they have less to fear from holding them. But the region's uprisings seem to demonstrate that republics are the most promising candidates for systemic change. Egypt and Tunisia, both led by unpopular presidents, were the first to go. The other likely candidates for revolutions -- Libya, Yemen, and possibly Algeria -- are all republics.

Two distinct models for change are emerging. In republics, the person of the president, because of his dominating, partisan role, provides a rallying point for an otherwise fractious opposition. The protesters may disagree on how their country should be run and by whom, but they at least agree one thing: the president must go. The goal isn't political change, which can mean many different things in execution, but regime change.

Protesters in monarchies lack a similarly clear mission. They face a more formidable opponent --kings can be just as repressive as presidents but can draw on greater religious and historical legitimacy, often allowing them to retain some popularity. Kings, in other words, manage to still be autocrats but in a less overt way, which is in part what makes their reign more acceptable to their people. Where Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya resorted to flagrantly rigged elections, monarchs in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Kuwait hold reasonably free polls and permit legal opposition. It just so happens that these elections determine relatively little of real importance. Decision-making authority remains with the king and the cabinets that he appoints. These regimes have been able to create the illusion of reform even as they strengthened their grip on power. Jordan went from having, in 1992, the best ever Freedom House scores for an Arab country to full-blown authoritarianism fifteen years later.

Nearly two months after Tunisia's revolution, monarchs have emerged largely unscathed. Protest movements and opposition groups have largely respected regime red lines, avoiding direct attacks on the monarchy. In late January, Jordanian protesters called for the downfall of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai's government, though they knew that Rifai openly served at the king's pleasure. Rifai stepped down, but King Abdullah -- the leader -- stayed on, as powerful as before.

Opposition groups in Arab monarchies, however, are beginning to shake off their longstanding caution. The king's prerogatives, if not the fact of his rule, have made the lists of protester grievances in Jordan as well as Bahrain, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia. Protesters have taken to calling for "constitutional monarchy." This would likely mean that the king transfer some of his considerable powers to elected governments. Of course, monarchs are not known for voluntarily giving up power. As Jordan's new prime minister, presumably channeling the king's vision, explained to skeptics, "I'm not opting for a temporary containment policy, but real reform is a gradual process." Egyptians and Tunisians, whose presidents made similarly vague promises days before their ousters, would probably beg to differ.

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Shadi Hamid is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy, and the author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East.

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