BEIRUT: It’s 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at Baabda Palace, and luxurious cars and convoys of ministers are beginning to show up. It’s just 30 minutes before the scheduled beginning of Prime Minister Tammam Salam’s first Cabinet session.
It is the first time the presidential palace has hosted a Cabinet session since last May, when the caretaker government of Najib Mikati met for the last time.
Information Minister Ramzi Joreige is the first to show up, soon followed by other ministers.
“How are you? I am back,” said a clearly thrilled Transport and Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, who served as a minister in two previous Cabinets.
Health Minister Wael Abu Faour was also in a good mood, even cracking jokes with reporters, while Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi insisted on shaking hands with every journalist present.
“Will you reconsider your decision [not to shake hands with me]?” Azzi cheekily asked one veiled reporter.
Salam’s first activity in Baabda Palace was to hold a meeting with President Michel Sleiman.
Commenting on the prospects for a productive Cabinet on his way to the session hall, Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Samir Moqbel said: “We can do a lot in four months or even four hours if we have the intention to work. ... But if we do not have this intention, we will do nothing even in four years.”
Salam’s Cabinet will resign once a new president assumes power. Sleiman’s term expires on May 25.
As the start of the session neared, more ministers showed up. Arriving together in one car were Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab and Energy Minister Arthur Nazarian, all loyal to Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun.
Minister of the Displaced Alice Shabtini, the only woman in the Cabinet, arrived five minutes late.
Shabtini, standing out from the sea of dark suits in a pink blouse and a gray skirt, said she would be representing women “not only today, but God willing every time.”
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohammad Fneish, from Hezbollah, was the last to arrive at 11:10 a.m.
Shortly before the session began, ministers, including rivals, shook hands and had brief chats. Zeaiter, who is from Speaker Nabih Berri’s Development and Liberation bloc, had a short conversation with his rival, Minister of State for Administrative Development Nabil de Freij, from the Future bloc.
Some rival ministers sat beside each other, such as Industry Minister Hussein Hajj Hasan, from Hezbollah and De Freij, while Tourism Minister Michel Pharaon, from the Future bloc, sat near Fneish.
During the meeting, which lasted for over an hour, ministers formed a ministerial committee headed by Salam to draft the Cabinet’s policy statement within 30 days.
“Love. Romance. But no grudges,” Bassil said after the Cabinet meeting, in reference to the friendly ambiance that defined the session.
Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi was even more optimistic than Bassil, saying: “If the atmosphere that we had in today’s session remains as is for the next four months, this means the country will start finding its way out of [this] crisis.”
Around 30 minutes after the session finished, Joreige held a news conference to brief reporters.
The Cabinet is due to convene again once Salam’s committee finishes preparing the policy statement. The Cabinet will then vote on it and, if passed, will refer it to Parliament for a vote of confidence. More sessions are expected to be held once the government wins a vote of confidence, though not necessarily with the same positive atmosphere that characterized Tuesday’s meeting.