Leaving Beirut for the drive north to Tripoli usually takes some fifteen minutes, but today, thanks to the visit of the Iranian President, traffic was gridlocked as roads across the city were closed off by the Lebanese military.
Flags and posters bearing the face of the grinning Ahmadinejad are plastered over large, but very selective, parts of the city. The airport road in particular was made up as if a large carnival was about to begin. Yesterday teams of street workers applied fresh paint to the sidewalks and local monuments. Yellow police tape was strung across roads like bunting, all to ensure that errant Lebanese parking wouldn't delay the VIP convoy that arrived first thing this morning.
Sitting in an office in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli I was reminded of one of the potential perks of the Iranian visit. The sudden plunge into darkness and the sad gasp from the air conditioning unit was a reminder of the regular power cuts that plague the country. Iran, with newly discovered oil and gas reserves, has already proved that energy can be a crucial currency of diplomacy in its close relations with Syria. Many Lebanese residents hope that beyond causing lots of traffic jams, Ahmadinejad can offer them something of similar constructive substance.
But all is not well, media reports regularly highlight the 'tensions' that remain in the ideologically divided Lebanese 'national unity cabinet'. Tensions were certainly felt by tourists visiting the center of Beirut where they came across squads of Lebanese soldiers on patrol, against a backdrop of flying checkpoints and stationary guards. American tourists were a rare beast today, perhaps having taken to heart the advice of the US State Department to keep a low profile and avoid crowds during Ahmadinejad's visit.
With a visit to the Israeli border in store for tomorrow this particular political circus shows no signs of coming to an end.
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