Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam on Saturday unveiled a compromise government, capping 10 months of political wrangling during which the war in neighbouring Syria exacerbated sectarian tensions.
The 24-member government, including only one woman, brings together the powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah and its allies with the Sunni-led bloc of former prime minister Saad Hariri, who back opposing sides in the Syria war.
“After 10 months of efforts, of patience, a government protecting the national interest is born,” said Salam, who had been tasked with forming the cabinet in April.
“It is a unifying government and the best formula to allow Lebanon to confront challenges,” he said, announcing the line-up to replace that of his predecessor Najib Mikati.
Syria’s nearly three-year war has deeply divided Lebanon, and the violence has spilled across the border into the tiny Mediterranean country, which has been hit by car and suicide bomb attacks.
Lebanon is also struggling under the weight of nearly one million Syrian refugees, who are testing its already limited resources.
Salam pledged to “bolster security… confront all types of terrorism” and tackle “the burden” faced by Lebanon as more refugees pour in from Syria.
Since April, efforts to form a government had stumbled over disputes between Hezbollah, whose fighters have been helping the Syrian army crush the revolt, and the Hariri bloc which backs the Sunni-led uprising.
Britain, France, the United Nations, the United States and the European Union all welcomed the new government, pledging to work with Salam and his cabinet to help Lebanon achieve security and stability.
– Compromise agreement –
The new government brings together for the first time in three years Hezbollah and the Hariri bloc, and the agreed compromise ensures neither side has veto power over the other.
The 24 portfolios are divided into three groups, with Hezbollah and Hariri’s blocs each taking eight ministries, with candidates considered to be neutral allocated the remainder.
To preserve the delicate balance between the country’s 18 sects, the government is also equally divided between Christian and Muslim representatives.
Hezbollah’s political wing will have two ministries — industry and minister of state for parliamentary affairs — with its allies taking portfolios including the foreign ministry and energy ministry.
Just one woman, Alice Shabtini who is considered neutral, was awarded a portfolio. She will head the ministry in charge of people displaced during the 1975-1990 civil war.
Hariri paved the way for the breakthrough when he announced in a U-turn last month that he was willing to allow his so-called March 14 bloc join a government with arch-rival Hezbollah.
Five Hezbollah members are currently on trial in absentia at a special court in The Hague for their alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
March 14 sources said Hariri had made a number of “concessions” to Hezbollah, which won several key portfolios for its Christian ally Michel Aoun.
His son-in-law Gebran Bassil becomes foreign minister, and fellow bloc member Arthur Nazarian will handle the powerful energy ministry.
Hariri also reportedly compromised on two initial candidates for interior minister, both of whom were rejected by Hezbollah’s bloc, party sources said.
Hariri congratulated Salam on the new government, saying he hoped it would be “able to deal with the constitutional and national challenges, with the responsibility required at this crucial period of the country’s history”.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Washington hopes the new government will “address… urgent security, political and economic needs”.
He listed the challenges ahead for Lebanon, including holding forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections “in a timely, transparent, democratic and fair manner”.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon also urged political leaders to prepare for the upcoming polls and help the government deal with “security, humanitarian and economic challenges”.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the formation of a new government was a key step in dealing with the country’s challenges, highlighting an “unprecedented refugee influx”.
She expressed hope the government would maintain “peace and security in Lebanon including by the reassertion of a policy of dissociation from the Syrian conflict”.
In recent months, a string of bomb attacks has rocked Beirut and other parts of Lebanon, largely targeting Hezbollah strongholds but killing civilians.
Jihadist groups, some linked to those fighting in Syria, have claimed responsibility and said the attacks are a response to Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian conflict.
Deadly fighting has also intermittently rocked Lebanon’s northern port city of Tripoli, which is largely divided among supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime.