Moderate MP Tamam Salam was named on Saturday as Lebanon’s new prime minister, pledging in his first address to the nation to safeguard the country from the war raging in neighbouring Syria.
“There is a need to bring Lebanon out of its state of division and political fragmentation, as reflected on the security situation, and to ward off the risks brought by the tragic situation in the neighbouring country and by regional tensions,” he said.
Salam, 67, of the Western-backed opposition, made the remarks in his inaugural speech shortly after being tasked by President Michel Sleiman with forming a new government.
His appointment comes two weeks after Najib Mikati resigned and effectively brought down his Hezbollah-dominated government.
Salam also pledged to work with all groups across Lebanon’s political spectrum, which is split into pro- and anti-Damascus camps.
“I have accepted this nomination… out of conviction that it is my duty to work for my country’s interest, in cooperation with all political parties,” he said.
Lebanon was dominated politically and militarily by Syria until 2005, and the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still holds great influence over Beirut through Hezbollah and other allies.
The March 14 opposition movement, meanwhile, is fiercely opposed to Damascus.
Salam’s nomination is expected to help ease a political crisis that has gripped Lebanon since the Syria conflict erupted more than two years ago.
Although Salam’s nomination was backed by 124 MPs out of 128, he faces the difficult challenge of forming a government in a deeply divided country.
While Hezbollah has expressed support for creating a national unity government, it is unclear if March 14 would accept this.
Salam refused to comment, instead telling reporters: “I will work for a government committed to the national interest.”
Hanging over the process is the question of whether elections will go ahead as scheduled in June, amid broad opposition to the electoral law currently on the books.
“I am conscious that it is a sensitive period,” Salam said, stressing the importance of the speedy creation of a government and the elections.
Salam’s nomination came after regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia backed his candidacy. Several Lebanese politicians including veteran kingmaker Walid Jumblatt visited Riyadh after Mikati’s surprise resignation.
Mikati’s government adopted a policy of “disassociation” from Syria’s war, even though the violence has spilled over into fragile Lebanon.
There have been frequent clashes in the flashpoint northern city of Tripoli as well as cross-border shellings, and the United Nations says Lebanon has also become host to more Syrian refugees than any other country in the region.
Despite pulling out of Lebanon, Assad’s regime has continued through its allies to play a key role in its politics.
But with Syria reeling, Riyadh appears to be playing an increasing role in Lebanese politics.
In an editorial, the pro-Damascus Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar accused Riyadh of pushing Salam’s nomination as a “counter-coup” against Syria and its ally Hezbollah.
“Riyadh is contemplating returning to Lebanon though a counter-coup,” said Al-Akhbar, referring to a 2011 “coup” by Hezbollah against former premier Saad Hariri’s March 14 government.
That year Hezbollah withdrew from Hariri’s national unity government, causing its collapse, after the Special Tribunal for Lebanon named four Hezbollah members as suspects in the killing of the premier’s father, Rafiq Hariri.
Pro-opposition newspaper An-Nahar on Saturday also described Riyadh’s role as a Saudi “coup”.
Salam, a Sunni Muslim as tradition dictates for Lebanon’s prime ministers, is the son of Saib Salam, who was premier six times between 1952 and 1973.
He was first elected a Beirut MP in 1996, and re-elected in 2009. A graduate of economics and management in England and married with three children, he was culture minister between 2008 and 2009.