Tuesday 21 October 2014

Lebanon's PM forms 'unity cabinet'

Published 16/02/2014 | 04:57

Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam reveals his 'unity cabinet' (AP)

Lebanon's prime minister has formed a cabinet more than 10 months after taking office, taking in a wide range of political groups after bridging serious divisions among them, mostly over Syria's civil war.

Tammam Salam's 24-member national unity cabinet includes members of the Western-backed coalition as well as those of the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and its allies.

Fears of a spillover of Syria's civil war to its smaller neighbour have intensified pressure on Lebanon's rival faction to make concessions, making Mr Salam's job easier.

"This is a unity cabinet that represents at the present time the best formula for Lebanon with all the political, security, economic and social challenges it is facing," he said.

"The national interest cabinet was formed with the spirit of gathering, not divisions, and meeting, not defiance."

Mr Salam said the cabinet aimed to "strengthen national security and stand against all kinds of terrorism". He said it would also face the social issue of nearly a million Syrian refugees who fled for safety in Lebanon, which has a population of about four million.

The cabinet is not, however, expected to remain in office long, as a new government should be formed after President Michel Suleiman's six-year term ends in May and a new head of state is elected.

The Syrian civil war has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon and sharply divided its population, who support rival Syrian groups.

Many Shiite Muslims in Lebanon back Syrian president Bashar Assad's government, while Sunnis support rebels trying to remove him from power. Clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups have killed scores of Lebanese over the past months. A wave of car bombs have also claimed dozens of lives.

Hezbollah openly sent fighters to Syria last year to fight along Assad's forces while some Sunnis have joined the rebels.

The Western-backed coalition, known as March 14, had previously said it would not take part in any national unity government until the militant Hezbollah group, Lebanon's most powerful, withdraws its members fighting in Syria.

March 14's leader, former prime minister Saad Hariri, said last month he was ready to share power with Hezbollah if it helped end the cabinet formation deadlock. Hezbollah has also abandoned an earlier demand that it be given, along with its allies, veto power in the new cabinet.

In April last year, the vast majority of legislators chose British-educated Mr Salam to form the cabinet. He replaced Najib Mikati who resigned abruptly a month earlier over deadlock between Lebanon's two main political camps and infighting in his government.

Mr Mikati, who had served as prime minister since June 2011, headed a government that was dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.

Mr Salam is the son of the late former prime minister Saeb Salam and leans politically towards the Western-backed anti-Hezbollah coalition. He studied in the UK and has degrees in economics and business administration.

Lebanon's politics are always fractious, in part because of the sectarian make-up of the country's government. According to Lebanon's power-sharing system, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. Each faith makes up about a third of Lebanon's population.

Mr Salam's cabinet included only one woman, Alice Shabtini, who was named minister of displaced people.

As in the previous government, Hezbollah holds two posts.

The United Nations Security Council issued a statement saying that it "appealed to all Lebanese people to preserve national unity in the face of attempts to undermine the country's stability and stressed the importance for all Lebanese parties to respect Lebanon's policy of disassociation and to refrain from any involvement in the Syrian crisis".

AP

Press Association

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