Meet the Losers

Article excerpt

Byline: Leslie H. Gelb; Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Oilmen cheer. But the Mideast revolution isn't turning out so well for the U.S. and Israel.

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 organized 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 percent, 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 legalized. 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 Shiite majority took to the squares and made the Sunni autocracy tremble--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 monopolized attention, though its international importance is modest. Its normal output of oil sits at only 1 percent of daily global consumption. But watch out: legions of neoconservatives are demanding military action against Gaddafi, though his Arab neighbors say "stay out. …