BEIRUT: Tammam Salam begins his work as Lebanon’s new prime minister at the Grand Serail Monday, two days after he unveiled a “national interest” Cabinet, pledging to bolster national security, confront terrorism and hold the presidential election on time.
The 24-member Cabinet, equally divided between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions and centrists, faces tough political, security and economic challenges, including how to cope with the more than a million Syrian refugees who have fled for safety to Lebanon since the uprising began in Syria in March 2011.
Salam met President Michel Sleiman at Baabda Palace Sunday to discuss preparations to hold the first Cabinet session this week.
While handover ceremonies between outgoing and new ministers will be held at various ministries Monday, Salam is expected to call the Cabinet meeting at Baabda Palace Tuesday to form a ministerial committee tasked with drafting the government’s policy statement.
Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri congratulated Salam on the formation of his Cabinet, praising the Beirut MP’s “patience and wisdom.” During a phone conversation, Hariri expressed hope that the Cabinet would be up to the national challenges and be able to hold the presidential election on time.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah voiced support for the new government, describing it as “a compromise Cabinet.” He said he hoped the Cabinet would help defuse sectarian tensions in the country and fight terrorism by takfiri factions.
The Cabinet, which quickly won support from regional and international powers that have repeatedly voiced concern for Lebanon’s stability in view of the war raging in Syria, needs to work hard to set the stage for the timely election of a new president in order to prevent the country from falling into a presidential vacuum. Sleiman’s six-year term in office expires on May 25.
Likewise, the Cabinet, which includes 12 newcomers and only one woman, will need all the political skill to help defuse mounting sectarian tensions, fueled by deep national divisions between the March 8 and March 14 parties over the conflict in Syria.
Unlike former Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government that was dominated by Hezbollah and its March 8 allies and did not include any March 14 representatives, Salam’s Cabinet leans toward the Future Movement and its allies since the premier, who has two ministers, is associated with the March 14 coalition.
The Lebanese Forces, which had called for a neutral government, refused to join the Cabinet to protest Hezbollah’s participation.
Because of political differences and horse trading between the parties over portfolios, the birth of the Cabinet took more than 10 months, the longest in Lebanon’s history.
The announcement of the Cabinet lineup Saturday came as a result of a compromise between Hariri and Free Patriotic Movement leader MP Michel Aoun to resolve the row over the rotation of ministerial portfolios. It also came after the dispute over allotting the Interior Ministry to retired Internal Security Forces chief Maj. Gen. Ashraf Rifi was settled by naming Rifi as justice minister.
The Cabinet’s policy statement promises to be a major bone of contention between the rival factions.
The Future Movement and its March 14 allies are pushing for the Baabda Declaration to be adopted as the new Cabinet’s policy statement. Hezbollah, backed by Speaker Nabih Berri and March 8 allies, wants the tripartite equation: “The Army, the people and the resistance,” adopted by previous governments, to remain in the new Cabinet’s ministerial statement.
Salam promised that his Cabinet would work to revive National Dialogue between the rival factions on divisive issues and to set the stage for the presidential election.
“After 10 months of intensive efforts following my designation by 124 MPs, which required a lot of effort, patience and flexibility, the Cabinet of national interest was born,” Salam told reporters at Baabda Palace Saturday shortly after Cabinet Secretary-General Suheil Bouji announced the formation decrees and the names of the new ministers.“It is an all-embracing Cabinet that represents at the present time the best formula for Lebanon as it faces political, security and socio-economic challenges,” Salam said.
Salam, 68, who was appointed on April 6, 2013, following the resignation of Mikati’s government, said his Cabinet was in line with the National Pact on equal power sharing between Muslims and Christians and left no room for political disruptions.
“I distributed the 24 ministerial portfolios in this Cabinet in a way that achieves a [sectarian] balance and national partnership at a distance from the negative effects of disruptions,” he said.
Salam also noted that his government adopted the principle of rotating ministerial portfolios based on party and sect.
“This Cabinet has all the constitutional, [National] Pact, legal and representative elements,” Salam said. “The Cabinet of national interest has been formed with a spirit of unity, not division, concurrence, not challenge.”
“This spirit is capable of creating a positive climate for the revival of National Dialogue on divisive issues under the president’s sponsorship. It is also capable of setting the stage for holding the presidential election on time, in addition to pressing for the approval of a new electoral law,” Salam said.
He said he extended his hands to cooperate with all political leaders to save the country, urging them to rally around the Army and security forces in order “to bolster national security and confront all kinds of terrorism.”
In recent months, a spate of deadly car bombings and suicide attacks rocked Beirut’s southern suburbs and the eastern town of Hermel, largely targeting areas where Hezbollah enjoys wide support. The attacks were claimed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, which have vowed to strike Hezbollah’s areas in response for the party’s military intervention in Syria to support President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Nasrallah said he hoped the Cabinet would ease sectarian tensions and confront the threat of terrorism posed by Al-Qaeda-linked factions.
“We want the Cabinet to be one that brings [the rival factions] together. Today, I say seriously that we are going to the Cabinet with neither the intention to set up barricades in it, nor to show hostility,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech marking the commemoration of three slain Hezbollah leaders.
“We hope to go to a Cabinet of understanding, dialogue and one that takes the problem from the street and reduces the intensity of political and media rhetoric in the country,” he added.
Nasrallah said Hezbollah and the Amal Movement facilitated the formation of this Cabinet by dropping their demand for a 9-9-6 proposal.
“We had the options of continued [government] vacuum, which we rejected, a neutral Cabinet or a fait accompli government, which posed a danger to the country,” he said. “Subsequently, it was a compromise Cabinet, or it’s better to call it a Cabinet of national interest.”
Nasrallah said the Cabinet should act to ensure the presidential election was held on time.
Britain, France, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union all welcomed the new government, pledging to work with Salam and his Cabinet to help Lebanon achieve security and stability.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington hoped the new Cabinet would meet the country’s challenges and hold presidential and parliamentary elections “in a timely, transparent, democratic and fair manner.”
“Amidst growing terrorism and sectarian violence, we look to the new Cabinet, if approved by parliament, to address Lebanon’s urgent security, political and economic needs,” Kerry said in a statement.