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Obama can't 'lead from behind' on Syria

Pathik Root | CNN

On March 30 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gave his first speech since the start of the popular uprising in his nation. I was listening from a 12-by-12 prison cell in Damascus with 21 other inmates. I had gone to Syria to finish my junior year studying abroad after the revolution in Egypt led to the evacuation of my program there.

The Assad speech was the only time during my two weeks in prisonthat I was allowed news from the outside. Although we were all skeptical of Assad's ability to reform, I still had a sliver of hope.

After my release I supported the Obama administration's cautious stance on the Syrian revolution. I applauded the president's willingness to consider all options. However, recent developments have made it clear that Assad's opportunity to institute real reform is gone. His speech Monday was merely confirmation. Unfortunately, President Obama still clings to a "lead from behind" policy that does not reflect the realties on the ground.

Hillary Clinton's recent op-ed in Asharq Alawsat, stating that the Syrian regime is "certainly not indispensable," represented an escalation of rhetoric, but failed to adequately shift policy. It is now in America's moral and national interest to decisively guide the international community toward a future without Assad.

Read the rest on the CNN website...


A Well Timed Trial, But for Whom?

Tik Root | New York Times "Room for Debate"

Mubarak’s trial is similar to Saddam Hussein’s in that, by itself, it is unlikely to affect the long-term trend toward either chaos or stability. However, there will be significant short-term implications.

The trial is the biggest test yet for Egypt’s maligned justice system. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which now runs Egypt, has been widely criticized for its lack of transparency and insistence on trying civilians in military courts. Mubarak’s trial is an opportunity for the Supreme Council to prove that it can openly implement due process. If the effort fails, Egyptians could start to seriously doubt the ability of the Supreme Council to hand power over to an elected legislator later in the year.

The Supreme Council is known to use Mubarak and other top regime figures as a way of temporarily deflecting public criticism away from itself. Mubarak’s trial is sure to provide a distraction for the many Egyptians who are growing wary of recent military misdeeds like virginity tests. The distraction will buy the Supreme Council time to solidify its own interests before relinquishing power.

The trial will also take place as candidates gear up for the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for September. Perhaps the Supreme Council is hoping that the political rhetoric will focus on fixing the problems left behind by the old regime, rather than the blunders of the transitional government.

The timing of the trial even favors Mubarak. It begins on the first week of Ramadan, a monthlong Muslim holiday consisting of daily fasts and religious observance. It is traditionally a time of forgiveness and mercy, when, among other things, prisoners are often showed leniency.

Ramadan is also prime shopping season and often makes or breaks a business’s profits for the year. It will be hard for the average Egyptian to justify paralyzing the economy with further demonstrations. If this hesitancy is combined with the theory that a fasting population is harder to mobilize, the result could very well be a subdued public reaction to the trial, and less pressure on the Supreme Council. That said, Egyptians have already shown a willingness to take to the streets unexpectedly.

I think that the vast majority of Egyptians are hoping that Mubarak will be convicted. In the short run, this common goal should be a uniting force. But in the long run, Egypt faces so many other potentially divisive challenges that the effects of the trial are likely to fade.

For now, a fair and transparent trial would be the ultimate victory for the millions of men, women and children who are struggling to shed Mubarak-era tactics.


Studying abroad, I got caught in Syria’s crackdown

Pathik Root | Washington Post

The walls of my 3-by-7-foot cell, which I shared with another man, were covered in carvings made by former prisoners. The tick-marks in the plaster, meant to indicate how many days a person had been there, were most unnerving: Khalid, 12; an unnamed man, 24; and poor Ashraf, 31. I asked myself: How many am I going to be making? I was lucky. I only got to seven, at least in that cell. I spent a second week packed into a 12-by-12-foot cell with 22 other men.

I am a student at Middlebury College, and I was planning on spending my junior year studying in Alexandria, Egypt. I did spend the fall there, polishing my Arabic skills, meeting Egyptians and traveling around the country. In January, I watched my friends, neighbors and professors join the crowds on the streets of Alexandria. I became a surprise witness to the country’s largest popular uprising in modern history.

By the seventh day of the revolution, our program evacuated, and I could choose to finish my year abroad in either Morocco or Syria. After consulting many people and doing plenty of research, Syria seemed like the clear, safe choice. After all, who could imagine a revolt in a police state?

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Notion of free water must evaporate

Pathik Root & Roger Harrison | Arab News

JEDDAH: The average human is a frail creature that cannot last very long without water, especially in a hot, arid climate like Saudi Arabia’s.

According to an unreleased report prepared for Minister of Water and Electricity, the Kingdom uses 1.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water each year to support 20 million palm trees. That is three times that amount of water that Jeddah consumes annually. Although the number may seem justifiable, the economic impact of such water use might not be.

The consumer in Saudi Arabia buys water for domestic use under heavily subsidized pricing. It is a sweet deal for consumers because they can use as much as they wish and pay low monthly bills.

Desalination plants supply 60 percent of this urban water use, with the other 40 percent coming from groundwater. According to an industry expert, production and transmission costs amount to SR4/cm for desalinated water, and SR2/cm for ground water. But these prices exclude two hidden costs.

One overlooked cost comes from the use of government-subsidized oil in the desalination process. If the plants were to use market priced oil, it would add an estimated SR2 /cm to the production costs. Furthermore, the above transmission cost only includes getting the water from the source to the municipal distribution network. Distributing this water to each household adds another two riyals to the cost of both desalinated, and ground water, according to this industry expert who did not want his name published.

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Kingdom has potential to harness solar energy

Pathik Root & Roger Harrison | Arab News

JEDDAH: The summer solstice occurred on June 21 at 05.45 UCT. During that 24-hour period, when the sun reached its farthest northerly arc, 970 trillion kilowatt hours of free energy beamed to earth. That, according to the US Energy Administration, is about 247 years supply of energy for America — in one day.

The best part is that sunshine is free. Any profit lies in the rights to place solar energy gatherers in national territories, the conversion of heat to electricity and the sale of energy. The fossil-fuel industry operates on much the same basis. However, there are a couple of significant differences.

The sun is not going to run out for several billion years, however much energy we can extract from it and we can utilize its energy with far, far less pollution. The biggest hindrance to solar adoption has been the perception of high economic cost compared to conventional oil-fired power plants.

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