BEIRUT: Preparations were underway at Beirut’s Grand Serail Monday as Lebanon’s new Prime Minister Tammam Salam made the transition to replace his predecessor after a new Cabinet was formed over the weekend.
Unlike at ministries, there is no official handover ceremony between prime ministers. So when Salam arrived at the Grand Serail at 9 a.m. Monday, former Prime Minister Najib Mikati was nowhere to be seen, and neither were his staff. Salam, who was accompanied by his adviser Hisham Jaroudi and a number of escorts, was instead greeted by Cabinet Secretary-General Souheil Bouji and other Serail employees.
All elevators were stopped as Salam and his convoy made his way to his office on the second floor.
Salam received a warm Western welcome Monday, and was visited by American Ambassador David Hale and British Ambassador Tom Fletcher. He also received a blessing from Bkirki from Bishop Boulos Sayah, who headed a delegation on behalf of Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai.
The premier also received a visit from his wife Lama Badreddine, who arrived at the Serail around 11 a.m.
Journalists also tried to enter Salam’s office to congratulate him, but were denied entry, prompting complaints. The only other small hiccup occurred when reporters noticed that the media office’s coffee maker was missing, but it was later discovered that the machine was privately owned by the former premier’s staff and so had been reclaimed.
The new 24-member Cabinet, equally divided between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions and centrists, was formed over the weekend after an 11-month political deadlock. It faces tough political, security and economic challenges, including how to cope with the more than a million refugees who have fled to the country since the uprising began in Syria in March 2011.
Abdel-Sattar al-Laz will replace Fares Gemayel as the prime minister’s new media adviser, while Nafez Kawas, the media attaché, is waiting to take over the office of Khodor Taleb, an adviser of Mikati’s who went back to work for local newspaper As-Safir.
Ramez Dimashkieh will become director of Salam’s office, and will also be working with a number of other advisers.
The security team, which handles the safety of the Grand Serail and personally attends to the prime minister, will remain in the hands of Brig. Gen. Ahmad Hajjar.
Lacking the hustle and bustle of previous times, the Serail’s current atmosphere suggests a lack of advisers and staff. Instead, there is a pervasive feeling that things are not yet completely settled and remain in flux, as Salam waits for members of the National News Agency to join his team along with others whom the prime minister might need.
The new premier did not partake in any official activities Monday afternoon. He is set to be at the presidential palace in Baabda Tuesday morning to choose a committee that will be responsible for drafting the ministerial statement. The group is expected to include a minister from each political party participating in the Cabinet.
Under the law, the government has one month from the issuance of the ministerial decrees to present its ministerial statement to Parliament for it to receive a vote of confidence.
If the Cabinet is unable to agree on a formula, the government will be considered resigned, according to the Constitution.
Such an incident, however, has yet to occur in Lebanese history.
As Salam took up his post, new Environment Minister Mohammad Mashnouk was also heading to his ministry, where he took over the office from Nazem Khoury.
Before leaving the Serail Monday, Mashnouk said the ministerial statement would aim to stick to the common goal of maintaining calm in the country, citing Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s televised speech Sunday night as an example.
Political sources close to the government formation issue told The Daily Star Monday it was important not to rely on statements released by the new ministers or political party officials in the government. The sources noted that the ministerial statement would be short.
The sources added that the newly formed Cabinet was an exceptional one whose main purpose was to manage and oversee the presidential election and work on the adoption of a new electoral law.
The sources did not rule out the possibility of officials “bidding” against one another while drafting the ministerial statement, but said that if some of their stances concern the need to uphold the Baabda Declaration, or reject the “Army, resistance, people” formula, there was no doubt that Salam’s government would soon turn into a caretaker one. In such an event the president would have to call for parliamentary consultations to choose another official to entrust with the formation of a new government.