Thursday, April 4, 2013

Tammam Salam: between Future and Miqati

[Originally posted at NOW]

Having reportedly secured the nominations of Future Movement leader Saad Hariri and, crucially, Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) head Walid Jumblatt, Beirut MP Tammam Salam appears to have sufficient backing to become the next prime minister of Lebanon when President Suleiman polls parliamentarians on the matter this weekend. NOW profiles Salam’s historical, political, and personal record.

Born in 1945, the son of six-time Prime Minister Saeb Salam, Tammam hails from a family whose wealth and prestige in the Sunni community date back to Ottoman times. An Arab nationalist who in the 1958 war allied with then-PSP leader Kamal Jumblatt against the pro-Western policies of President Camille Chamoun, Saeb Salam was resentful of his displacement as de facto Sunni chieftain by Rafiq Hariri in the 1990s. Though a reconciliation of sorts later occurred, when Tammam was first elected MP in 1996 his relations with Hariri remained lukewarm, and indeed he ran against him in Beirut in 2000, the same year his father Saeb died.

It was not until Hariri’s 2005 assassination that Salam (who had opposed the emerging campaign against the Syrian occupation) grew closer to the Future Movement, and though he never joined the party, he began thereafter to run on Hariri’s electoral lists; he eventually was appointed minister of culture in Fouad Siniora’s cabinet following the 2008 Doha Agreement. Following that cabinet’s dissolution in 2009, Salam became MP for the Beirut III district, running as an independent on March 14’s list.

Analysts thus summarized him to NOW as a March 14 dove – “between Future and [Caretaker PM Najib] Miqati” – a label further borne out in his somewhat conciliatory attitude toward March 8 magnate Hezbollah. In a leaked US embassy cable from late 2006, then-US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman recalls a meeting with Salam in which he “both defended and criticized” the Party of God, reproaching the US for labeling them “terrorists” and praising their alliance with Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. Another cable quotes him implying that the party’s arms are legitimate as long as Israel occupies Shebaa Farms.

At the same time, since 2005 he has firmly (if quietly) opposed the Syrian regime, whom he accuses in the same cable of waging a “vendetta” against Lebanon and of posing the greatest risk to the country in general. “He never joined the bandwagon of insulting [Syrian President] Assad,” said one analyst who preferred to remain anonymous. “But he doesn’t hide his March 14 credentials.” More recently, Salam condemned Miqati’s cabinet for politicizing the Syrian refugee issue and failing to “fulfill its humanitarian mission.”

As a person, too, Salam is said to be of moderate temperament – a trait that may prove useful if and when the complex business of forming a cabinet gets underway. “Anyone who knows Tammam either as a public figure or in private knows that he’s a quiet person who approaches problems in a positive manner with a firm will to get a solution rather than complicating the issue,” said Antoine Haddad, secretary-general of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement, an independent party that has previously run on March 14 tickets. “He’s not confrontational, but he also does not surrender on basic principles. So if he is accepted by March 8, he could be a good prime minister for the coming period.”

However, another analyst told NOW he “doubts Hezbollah would endorse” Salam. Were that the case, Salam would secure the nomination only by a slim majority, and face serious difficulties appointing Shiite cabinet ministers. “I don’t see him as someone who is ready to appoint anti-Hezbollah Shiite ministers, it’s not part of his character; he has a moderate, dialogue-prone character.”

Haddad agrees, telling NOW that Salam may try to tailor his cabinet in such a way as to bring Hezbollah on board. “My guess is that he will try to form a government acceptable by more than the majority that has nominated him [i.e. Future and Jumblatt]. I think this is the purpose behind nominating someone like Tammam and not, for example, Saad Hariri. It’s a clever approach to try to rebalance the government without excluding the other parties.”

By the same token, however, should Hezbollah reject him out of hand, his viability as a prime minister would likely prove short-lived.

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