Lebanon's Salam - consensus PM for tough times

AFP , Saturday 15 Feb 2014

Tammam Salam
Tammam Salam (Photo: Reuters)

Tammam Salam, who on Saturday became Lebanon's new prime minister at the head of a compromise government, is a moderate politician from a family with a long political history.

A Sunni Muslim, as tradition dictates for Lebanon's prime ministers, he is a son of Saib Salam -- who himself held the job six times between 1952 and 1973 -- and a woman hailing from Damascus.

Known for his calm temperament and distinctive baldness, Salam, 68, was first elected a Beirut MP in 1996. He was re-elected in 2009.

Both times, he was on the electoral list of the Hariri family -- first that of Rafiq Hariri, the ex-premier assassinated in 2005, and then on that of Rafiq's son, Saad.

Conciliatory in his ways, Salam has been less outspoken and hawkish than other Lebanese opponents of the long-time influence of neighbouring Syria in Lebanon's politics.

Two weeks after Najib Mikati resigned as premier, Salam won almost all MPs' votes for the post, amid hopes he would help ease the country's stark divisions.

Long-standing political differences between the Western-backed Hariri grouping known as March 14 and the bloc of the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah have been deepened by the war in neighbouring Syria.

Hezbollah is allied with the government of President Bashar al-Assad and has dispatched fighters to bolster his troops against the uprising that began there in March 2011.

Hariri backs the Sunni-led opposition in Syria, and is a fierce opponent of Hezbollah.

Five members of the group are currently on trial in absentia before a special tribunal in The Hague for their alleged role in the assassination of Hariri's father.

In announcing his cabinet on Saturday, Salam called it a "government protecting the national interest".

"It is a unifying government and the best formula to allow Lebanon to confront challenges," he said.

Though he has condemned Syria's cross-border bombings of Lebanese areas that back the anti-Damascus revolt, Salam has never made fiery anti-Assad statements.

In 1992, post-civil war Lebanon was crushed under Syria's domination. In solidarity with Lebanese Christians who boycotted a parliamentary election, he also refused to stand out of conviction that Lebanon cannot function without the participation of all its sects.

He has criticised Hezbollah's arsenal, but salutes the "resistance against Israel", the Shiite movement's battle-cry.

And unlike dissident hawks who accuse Hezbollah of creating "a state within the state", Salam has never overtly called on Israel's arch-enemy to disarm.

His conciliatory nature is reminiscent of his father, who was himself the son of a politician, a prominent figure during the Ottoman era and the French mandate period at the start of the 20th century.

During Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, which pitted Muslim militias allied to the Palestinians against Christian factions who rejected their presence in Lebanon, Saib Salam favoured slogans such as "One Lebanon, not two" and "Neither victors nor vanquished".

In 1982, he opposed the election of president Bashir Gemayel, who was adored by Lebanon's Christians. But after Gemayel was assassinated, Salam convinced the country's Muslims to vote for his brother, Amin.

Tammam Salam went to a French school in Beirut, and later graduated in economics and management in England.

He is married to Lama Baddreddine and has three children.

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