Blood Shed Boosts Oil Price

The biggest potential losers in the still-roiling revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa are the people themselves. Many are democrats at high risk of being overwhelmed over time by new dictators and organised religious extremists. But the uncontested winners are already quite clear: those who own, sell, and bet on oil. In the last month alone, oil prices have leaped almost 10 per cent, even with only tiny dips in supply.

While these revolutions have produced daily thunderclaps worldwide about a new democratic future for the Middle East, power structures remain largely intact. Almost every country in the region looks as if it’s marking time, waiting. So far, those who took to the streets succeeded only in ousting their unwanted masters — Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia — and not in really changing the power status quo ante. In Yemen, the established leadership does look shaky. In Libya, where the media proclaimed the rebels as victors last week, it seems like a standoff with Col. Muammar Gaddafi.

In Tunisia, where it all began, the revolutionaries are awaiting elections. The once banned Islamist party Al Nahda has just been legalised. In Egypt, the protesters still find themselves in the strong grip of the military. Elections are set for September, and the military, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, can be expected to top the parliamentary polls. In Bahrain, the huge Shia majority took to the squares  — only a causeway away from the Saudi Arabian oil jackpot. To date, the revolutions have generated far more drama and hope than real change.

The fighting in Libya has understandably monopolised attention, though its international importance is modest. Its normal output of oil sits at only one per cent of daily global consumption. But watch out: legions of neoconservatives are demanding military action against Gaddafi, though his Arab neighbours say, “stay out.”

Israel is the biggest strategic loser. The Jewish state has relied on Arab regimes to subdue the anti-Zionist sentiments of their peoples. And Israel can’t do anything to fix its plight. Times are not at all conducive for new talks with Palestinians. The United States is also a loser, but it need not be a big one. Washington’s power depends on whether the revolutions peter out or launch new anti-American rulers. Whatever happens, Washington will confront greater anti-Americanism. Counterterrorism operations and anti-Iran diplomacy will suffer.

Turkey will be a model for Arab nations lucky enough to democratise. Its foreign policy balances between the United States and the states of Islam and is also now somewhat anti-Israel. Internally, Turkey balances between an Islamic and a secular state. The country has internal stability and a promising economy.

Conventional wisdom holds that Iran has won the lottery. But don’t bet on it. Iranians are Shias and Persians; the revolutionaries are mostly Sunnis and Arabs. These groups don’t particularly care for one another. Most important, Arab revolutionaries must surely despise Iranian leaders who beat and slaughtered Iran’s freedom fighters a mere two years ago. It’s quite possible that the revolutionary fervour will tire amid economic shortages and other burdens, and fade. Or the revolutions could erupt once again, forcing profound recalculations of US policy. But two things are certain: the oil barons and traders will get richer, and most people worldwide will scramble against higher oil and food prices and declining economies.

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Social Media: Can Spark Revolts

Since the term “Twitter revolution” was coined in the summer of 2009 to describe the Iranian Green Movement’s use of the microblogging site, the nomenclature has used in an unforunate manner, applied to any sort of use of such tools during times of protest.

But while Twitter, Facebook, and even Google Docs were used in the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, most experts agree that they are tools, not catalysts for revolution.

Nevertheless, praise has been disproportionately bestowed upon these Silicon Valley giants by mainstream media, with little mention of the potential dangers of using such tools.

To find evidence of such risks, we need only look to Azerbaijan where, just last week, the moderator of a Facebook page calling for protest in the country was arrested, or to Tunisia, where dissidents’ Gmail and Facebook accounts were phished by the government in the midst of the revolt.

Risky business

More recently, Moroccans complained of having their Facebook accounts hacked, possibly by the government, or possibly by pro-monarchy forces.

Though some risks are inherent to the architecture and policies of social media tools–Facebook’s “real name” rule, for example, or the lack of HTTPS across most sites–others are a matter of use, and a lack of forethought to the permanence of online postings.

Imagine for a moment that Egypt’s protesters had not been successful in ousting Mubarak; the myriad photos, videos, and tweets posted by Egyptians, many with identifiable information, would remain online for the security service to pore through.

And with cameras omnipresent during protests, anyone who shows their face is at risk, as protesters learned after Burma’s Saffron revolution: intelligence agents scrutinised citizen videos to track down participants.

But even those individuals who remain largely anonymous online run the risk of being tracked down for their activities. In 2008, a young Moroccan engineer by the name of Fouad Mourtada was arrested for impersonating one of the monarchy’s princes, Moulay Rashid, on Facebook.

Facebook claimed they did not hand over the young man’s information to authorities, which suggests that it was obtained through another method, most likely deep packet inspection, a technique common in China and Iran.

Sketchy friends

One of the most easily-avoided risks is in a practice inherent to the concept of social media: making new friends. In the United States, creditors have taken note of users’ willingness to meet new people online and have utilised sites like Facebook to befriend–and then track down–their clients.

Though many social media users are prone to accepting requests from people they may not know well, activists could be at a higher risk as they attempt to build up their networks for a cause.

Some, like Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov, suggest that authoritarian regimes have the upper hand: In a chapter of his book entitled “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook,” Morozov cites the example of a Belarusian activist whose real-life activities (including travel and organisational connections) were easily gleaned by the KGB from his online presence.

Though Belarus–by all accounts an authoritarian regime with a history of spying on its citizens, online and off–may be an extreme example, the lesson is that average users are potentially putting themselves at risk every time they disclose an affiliation, post about a trip, or share a photo album.

But the potential risks of social media hardly outweigh the benefits, and for every phishing attempt or government spying case there is a success story of social media for activism: The Egyptian Facebook page that drew awareness to torture and mobilised thousands; the Syrian students whose cell phone videos of teachers abusing students led to the teachers’ dismissal; every rabble-rousing campaign to free an imprisoned blogger.

Rather than discourage use of social media during times of protest, these cautionary tales should instead invoke greater awarneness and lead to better education on the risks present, and better, safer practices.