Grass-roots activists in Western democracies like to believe that all politics is local. Or, alternatively, they like to say that "change" starts in people's backyards.
In Lebanon, on the other hand, every taxi driver knows that almost every aspect of his life is affected, in one way or another, by decisions made in Riyadh, Tehran, Cairo, Damascus, Paris, Moscow, Washington DC, and increasingly, even Beijing.
Starting from this premise, I will quickly glide through developments across the world today - developments that I believe will have an impact on Lebanese politics in the coming week. Events will be pigeonholed into three categories: International, Regional and the Regional-International nexus.
Allow to start with,
1. US North Korean Bilateral Negotiations. It appears that the US is quietly conceding to North Korean demands to hold direct talks. Agence France Press says, "US chief negotiator Christopher Hill has said he will meet with his North Korean counterpart in Beijing ahead of the opening of next week's six-way nuclear disarmament talks." Hill, "arriving in Japan for an overnight stop, said he will meet with North Korean envoy Kim Kye-Gwan in Beijing on Sunday."
US To China: I scratch your back, you scratch mine. I'll meet with the N Koreans if you vote a certain way at the UN Security Council. On another level, I wonder how Iran would feel if the "Axis of Evil" all of a sudden loses the venerable Kim Jong Il.
2. The Republic of Georgia, lead by Mickeil Saakashvili will not back down to Russian pressures and will continue on its Western-oriented trajectory. The Washington Times quotes the country's Prime Minister saying, "Georgia will not retreat from democratic reforms or its pro-Western foreign policy despite Russian pressure that could produce a total cutoff of oil and gas shipments this winter."
Hold On: I know what you're saying: what the hell does this have to do with Lebanon? Well the only way that Georgia manages to remain somewhat independent of its giant neighbor to the north is through US support. (sound familiar?) Russia sees this "breakaway" country as a major irritant, and definitely uses it as a bargaining chip in negotiations with other "international giants."
1. Palestine. Hamas (backed by the Tehran-Damascus axis) and the PLO (backed by the Cairo-Riyadh, Amman axis) are on the verge of civil war. Mahmoud Abbas has just called for elections as a way to avert bloodshed.
The Wash Post says, "factions exchanged gunfire Friday in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leaving more than 30 people wounded, as leaders from both parties warned of an escalation that could push the territories toward a deeper conflict"
The NY Times writes, "the violence and the heated oratory in recent days have increased talk about [an outright] confrontation, or even the possibility of a Palestinian civil war."
Concerning the elections, BBC World writes, "Mr Abbas' call for elections is a dangerous political move. It comes at a time when inter-factional violence between his own Fatah faction and Hamas has left several Palestinians dead in Gaza and the West Bank. A senior Hamas leader rejected Mr Abbas's call for early elections, saying that would be tantamount to a coup. (sound familiar?)
I wonder: if one faction is able to win over the other in Palestine, what the implications for Lebanon's two coalitions will be. Will the pressure on Lebanon increase? You betcha! Whoever loses is gonna want to compensate somewhere else, right?
2. Iraq. The Iraqis are apparently holding a "National Reconciliation Council." I wonder how effective such a conference will be in quelling the violence. However, at least it seems to be attracting some attention. Al Jazeera writes, "A national reconciliation conference designed to halt mounting sectarian violence in Iraq has opened in Baghdad. Hundreds of delegates from the country's divided political factions gathered at a conference centre inside Baghdad's Green Zone on Saturday in a bid to draw up a peace process."
Draw up a peace process? Is there a war? Anyways, sarcasm aside... if Sunnis and Shi'is are actually able to stop killing each other over there - or at least minimize the killing - we'll all be better off. Cross your fingers.
3. Iran. The Iranians are voting for municipal representatives, and for members of the "Assembly of Experts." The NY Times writes, "Iranians went to the polls Friday in large numbers, which analysts said could be good news for reformers and could work against the hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad." The newspaper goes on to say, "in Tehran, many voters said they were casting ballots for reformers, not out of devotion, but because they wanted more moderate figures to confront Mr. Ahmadinejad."
The Associated Press notes that "Polling hours in Tehran were extended for three hours to accommodate long lines. The head of the electoral organization, Deputy Interior Minister Mojtaba Samareh Hashemi, told state TV that many polling stations had asked for more ballots."
The Financial Times writes, "The turn-out was far higher than the 11 percent in Tehran's last municipal election, in 2003, when the reformists' defeat followed a period of internal bickering - and led to their setbacks in 2004 parliamentary elections and the 2005 presidential poll."
Please, Please: Iranians, vote for sane people this time! I beg you! On second thought, vote for whoever you wish. Khamenei really matters in your country. Besides, Hizballah gets its "guidance" straight from him.
1. Turkey-EU negotiations. The Financial Times reports, "Europe's leaders will agree in Brussels on Friday to endorse the partial suspension of Turkey's membership talks until Ankara opens its ports to ships from Cyprus, an EU member since 2004." The summit "is expected to set tough new entry rules for all future EU members in an attempt to allay public concerns that the club is growing too quickly." However, "Tony Blair will on Friday fly to Ankara to reassure Turkey that its path to the European Union remains open."
Now that Turkey is being nudged to play an increasingly active role in the Middle East by, among others, the Saudis as well as the Europeans (witness Erdogan's recent trip to Tehran and Damascus), I am sure these negotiations will consider this new role. The question being asked: How will Turkey help the EU project its influence in the region? Maybe Erdogan's shuttle diplomacy is meant to answer that question.
2. Blair's "Legacy." After Blair leaves Turkey he'll visit Egypt. Agence France Press writes, "the British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected in Egypt to hold talks with President Hosni Mubarak," according to "presidential sources." The two "are expected to hold talks on regional developments during a lunch meeting, the sources said, without giving a precise time. AFP writes, "state-owned Akhbar Al-Yom newspaper, citing an unnamed spokesman from the premier's office, said the two leaders would seek ways to revive the Middle East peace process and discuss developments in Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Sudan's troubled region of Darfur."
In light of the situation in the Palestinian territories, I find this meeting to be intriguing. How it will impact Lebanon? Well... I'm not sure. But it definitely has something to do with the PLO-Hamas "near" civil-war.
3. Saudi-American relations. It seems that the Saudis are bickering among themselves. They're trying to decide who gets to occupy the second most important seat in the kingdom: the family's ambassadorship to the US. Israeli backers in the US are jumping all over this one. The Wall Street Journal quotes the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Simon Henderson saying, this incident "provides yet another reminder that one of America's most important relationships is laced with surprise and mystery."
Of course, Saudi-American cooperation in the region, including Lebanon, transcends the matter of who is actually the Saudi ambassador in the US. However, I wouldn't discount this affair as irrelevant. I am confident that the ambassador plays an important day-to-day role in DC - at least as important a role as Amr Pasha is playing at this moment in Lebanon. I would keep an eye on this development.
So what am I trying to say here? Where is Lebanon going next week? The answer to the first question is that it seems the two "grand regional-international alliances" are still on a collision course - their posture remains one of confrontation, which brings me to my answer to the second question. The implication for Lebanon is that the country is going no where. The stalemate will continue. Seniora's visit to Moscow may lead to something positive, but I doubt it. None of the players in the "bigger game" appears to dominate the other, and that stalemate will more than likely reflect itself on the ground in Lebanon.
I feel that the violence in Gaza, however, is an attempt on the part of one group of powers to break the deadlock. We'll have to wait and see what happens there before we assess the repercussions on Lebanon. Moreover, let's wait and see what comes of this new initiative to take the Iranian nuclear issue to the Security Council . Maybe something will give on that front as well.
Otherwise... well, I'm sure that taxi driver is giving all his riders some free advice: get out while you can!