LONDON Caught off guard by the overthrow of long-time leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, political risk analysts are at odds over what happens next in the region.
Does Egypt's unpredicted revolution mark the beginning of the end for autocrats across the region and beyond? Or does it show a remarkable survivability of authoritarian elites?
Perhaps turmoil in North Africa is a sign of things to come in Russia or China as masses empowered by social media demand democracy and rights. Or maybe it is the latest indication of the decline of the United States as a geopolitical force?
Now military police have cleared the last protesters from Cairo's Tahrir Square, risk analysts and pundits who completely failed to predict the overthrow of leaders in Egypt and Tunisia offer wildly differing predictions of what happens next.
For some the best advice is simply to expect the unexpected.
"There is plenty of scope for further unrest in Egypt and elsewhere in the coming days/weeks," said Royal Bank of Canada in a research note, hedging its bets but challenging those who contend that Egypt's crisis might be over.
"Strategy: continue monitoring events in the region as there remains plenty of opportunity for event risk to materialize."
For U.S.-based political risk consultancy Stratfor, what is striking is how little has truly changed. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may be gone, but the country remains in the hands of his top generals.
"The week began with an old soldier running Egypt. It ended with different old soldiers running Egypt with even more formal power than Mubarak had," Stratfor wrote.
"We do not want to be killjoys now, since everyone is so excited and happy. But we should point out that, in spite of the crowds, nothing much has really happened yet in Egypt. It doesn't mean that it won't, but it hasn't yet."
Most analysts agree that Egypt's neighbors, particularly those with empty coffers and growing young frustrated urban populations, are most at risk of similar events. But opinions vary as to whether there will be a tide of further uprisings or whether revolutionary zeal will swiftly fall off.
"One way or the other, we continue to believe that recent events in Tunisia and Egypt are likely to prove a significant turning point for the region as a whole," wrote Nomura political analyst Alastair Newton.
"But it remains to be seen how quickly other regimes may be forced to change and what direction such changes might take."
SIGN OF U.S. DECLINE?
Those who only three weeks ago said it was unlikely events in Tunisia would repeat themselves in Egypt now say they do not see an immediate domino effect across the region. Power elites elsewhere will do what it takes to retain office, they say.
For those looking for reasons to be alarmed, Saudi Arabia leaps out as another state with aging leaders, internal strains and a potentially devastating impact on global oil supply in the event of trouble.
Demonstrations in nearby Bahrain could be an early warning sign, they suggest.
For liberals, radicals, firebrands and academics who long hoped for the collapse of strongmen across the region, the uprisings are a sign they are on the right side of history.
Some see it as another slap in the face for the United States, which tried to export democracy to Iraq by force with disastrous results while backing dictators elsewhere.
"It's a turning point for U.S. power across the region," said Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle Eastern studies at London's City University. "They have been exercising their influence through these autocratic regimes and now the tide is turning."
For those fixated by the rise of China -- which overtook Japan on Monday to become the world's second largest economy -- there are several ways of viewing events in North Africa.
Clearly, the speed with which unrest developed has alarmed at least some in Beijing, prompting them to block searches for the word "Egypt" from social networking sites. Mubarak's fate indicates authoritarianism does not always equal stability.
IMPACT BENEATH THE SURFACE?
But richer, fast-growing China is very different to Egypt -- and some argue events in Cairo could actually benefit Beijing.
They say the way Western capitals unceremoniously dumped Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali, making clear they would not support bloody crackdowns, might prompt some of Washington's more awkward autocratic allies to seek new friends.
"The real impact may be beneath the surface," said Anthony Skinner, associate director of British political risk consultancy Maplecroft. "Authoritarian states dependent on the U.S. will be worried. They may look to get support from elsewhere. Chinese aid is rather more no-strings-attached."
Both Iran and Myanmar were able to suppress uprisings with minimal economic damage, primarily because neither was dependent on Western aid or investment.
Zimbabwe, Sudan and Sri Lanka have also found Chinese support offers a bulwark against Western criticism.
Maybe that misses the immediate threat. In a research note on Monday, Bank of New York Mellon suggested the key lesson of Egypt and Tunisia was the political danger of rising food prices. Drought in China could push prices higher still and provoke further unrest elsewhere, it warned.
But Ian Bremmer, president of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, says some pundits and media have simply become too caught up in the excitement of events on the streets and cautions against drawing too many conclusions elsewhere.
"In short, we're not all Egyptians," he said.
(editing by Paul Taylor)