Change in Lebanon

Sunday, 07 April 2013

The toughest challenge of new Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam will be to shield his fragile nation from the disastrous fallout of the Syrian conflict and bridge divisions between the country’s Sunni, Shia and Christian communities. The conflict in Syria between mainly Sunni rebels and Alwite President Bashar Al Assad has driven deep wedges in the inter-communal relations in Lebanon, which haven’t been rosy even in the best of times.

Salam was named prime minister by politicians after Najib Mikati resigned as premier. His election was not difficult. Salam is a Sunni Muslim, as all prime ministers must be under the country’s confessional distribution of power, but he is known for his calm demeanour conciliatory approach. He is close to the Western-backed March 14 coalition, but what made him acceptable to the March 8 bloc led by Hezbollah and its Shia and Christian allies was his non-confrontational style and his family’s previous differences (Salam’s father served six times as prime minister in the turbulent years leading up to Lebanon’s civil war) with the Hariri clan, which dominates the March 14 coalition. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said he is ‘an absolute moderate’ explaining his support for him.

After the nomination, Salam has pledged to bridge divisions between the country’s three dominant communities. It will not be easy, but he is the most qualified in Lebanon to perform this task.

Salam also said he will seek to shield Lebanon from the Syrian tragedy, which has sent 400,000 refugees spilling over into a country of just four million, triggered street battles in the northern city of Tripoli and hit Lebanon’s economy. On Syria, the new prime minister will have to tread cautiously. For decades, Syria has held sway in its smaller neighbour and any change of government in Damascus or a further deterioration or continuation of the crisis there will have huge consequences for Lebanon.

Assembling a cabinet is another major challenge. Mikati took five months assemble a ministerial team and according to some reports, Salam could also take months to put together a cabinet. Former premier Mikati’s two years in office were dominated by efforts to contain sectarian tensions, violence and economic fallout from the Syrian conflict. The new prime minister will be struggling with the same troubles. He will have to perform the trapeze act of satisfying all sides. The best course of action would be to steer clear of the conflict in Syria though the pressures will be huge to side with one group or the other. 

Salam also needs to prepare for a parliamentary election which is due in June but faces delay. Rival Sunni, Shia and Christian politicians have failed to agree an electoral system under which the election will take place.•

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