In the rapidly changing map that stretches from Morocco to Iran, two presidents have already tumbled:Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Administration officials said they believe that Yemen’s authoritarian president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is in an increasingly tenuous position.
Yet in Bahrain, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has so far managed to weather a surge of unrest, winning American support, even though his security forces were brutal in their crackdown of protesters. Officials believe that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is also unlikely to be dethroned, while the emirs of the Persian Gulf have so far escaped unrest. Even in Jordan, where serious protests erupted, King Abdullah II has maneuvered deftly to stay in power, though he still has to contend with a restive Palestinianpopulation.
This pattern of kings holding on to power is influencing the administration’s response to the crisis: the United States has sent out senior diplomats in recent days to offer the monarchs reassurance and advice — even those who lead the most stifling governments. But it is keeping its distance from autocratic presidents as they fight to hold power.
By all accounts, that is more a calculation of American interests than anything else.
“What the monarchies have going for them are royal families that allow them to stand above the fray, to a certain extent,” said Kenneth M. Pollack, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “It allows them to sack the government without sacking themselves.”
Many of the monarchs have run governments every bit as repressive as the presidents’. And the American calculation of who is likely to hang on to power has as much to do with the religious, demographic and economic makeups of the countries as with the nature of the governments.
Arab presidents pretend to be democratically chosen, even though most of their elections are rigged. Their veneer of legitimacy vanishes when pent-up grievances in their societies explode. Most of the presidents oversee more populous countries, without the oil wealth of the gulf monarchies, which would enable them to placate their populations with tax cuts and pay raises, like the kings of Saudi Arabia and Jordan have done recently.
The Americans acknowledge that they have no choice but to support countries like Saudi Arabia, and that all of the situations could change rapidly.
A case in point is Libya, where Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi— neither a king nor a president — has been brought to the verge of collapse with dizzying speed…
“The republics — and hence, the presidents — are the most vulnerable because they’re supposed to be democracies but ultimately are not,” said an Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They pretend people have a voice, but this voice doesn’t exist. With the monarchy, no one’s pretending there’s a democracy.”