Lebanon’s Salam - consensus premier for tough times

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Tammam Salam, who was handed on Saturday the tough task of forming a new Lebanese government, comes from a family with a long legacy in politics and is a moderate member of the Western-backed opposition.

A Sunni Muslim -- as tradition dictates for Lebanon’s prime ministers -- the new premier 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, 67, was first elected a Beirut MP in 1996. He was re-elected in 2009.

Both times, he was on the Hariri electoral list -- firstly that of Rafiq Hariri, an 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 to the long-time influence of neighboring 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, splitting the Washington and Riyadh-backed opposition from the Damascus- and Tehran-allied Hezbollah.

Garnering the backing he needs for now, his toughest challenge lies ahead -- forming a government that suits both the anti-Damascus March 14 movement and Hezbollah, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In his first speech to the nation, Salam expressed a wish to safeguard fragile Lebanon from the impact of the raging war in neighbouring Syria.

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 run, out of conviction that Lebanon cannot function without the participation of all its sects.

And although he has criticized Hezbollah’s arsenal, he salutes the “resistance against Israel”, the Shiite movement’s battle-cry.

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. The newly appointed premier’s grandfather was prominent 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 raised 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.

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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