July 17, 2016

Lebanese prime minister: ‘Only an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Lebanon will produce a president’

\'Yes, I am frustrated by this presidential vacuum\'

BEIRUT - Lebanon’s Tammam Salam is a prime minister without a president. Salam, an independent, finds himself as Lebanon\'s most senior official in the midst of an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis, with Lebanon’s parliament deadlocked over the appointment of a new president since Michel Suleiman left office in May 2014.
Salam is careful not to take a side in the political manoeuvring over the election of the next president – who must be a Maronite Christian.
Speaking to The Arab Weekly, Salam defended Lebanon’s complex political system in spite of the ongoing presidential vacuum, stressing that this always leads to compromise and consensus. “With the exception of the 1970 election that brought Suleiman Frangieh to power by just one [parliamentary] vote, all other presidents were elected following political compromise and consensus, both at home and abroad.”
In spite of this, Lebanon\'s prime minister and acting president acknowledged: \"Yes, I am frustrated by this [ongoing presidential vacuum.”
Salam, who became acting prime minister after Najib Mikati’s resignation in May 2013, was himself a consensus figure, being tasked with forming a new government by a vote of 124 out of 128 parliamentarians. He was chosen by consensus from within the country, as well as support from abroad.
Salam was the right man at a the right time for Lebanon, even if his time in office could be coming to an end, with most political analysts believing that any deal between Lebanon’s rival political forces to elect a consensus president must see a new prime minister and government.
Salam acknowledges the frustration of the Lebanese people towards his government, with political action in the country virtually at a standstill over the past two years given the entrenched divisions that have emerged in the wake of the presidential crisis. With all sides – particularly the rival March 14 and March 8 blocs which form the bulk of Salam’s coalition government – failing to engage on a variety of issues, and no president to break the deadlock, Salam’s government is facing an impossible situation.
“If there was a president in office then the government’s performance would not have reached this level,” Salam said. His government – formed in February 2014 – operated for a scant few months under then President Michel Suleiman, before Lebanese politics was overshadowed by the race to appoint a successor.
“When this same government was operating under president Michel Suleiman for more than three months, we achieved a lot and secured movement on a number of issues,” Salam said.
As the political crisis continues in Lebanon some political observers have called for the dissolution of the Taif Agreement, which served as the basis for ending Lebanon’s destructive civil war and put in place a new power-sharing agreement between Lebanon’s various political forces and sectarian communities.
“Nothing stops us from developing and improving the constitution... but we cannot accept abandoning the Taif Agreement for a leap into the dark,” Salam said.
There is also an international dimension to the presidential crisis, given that rival regional powers Saudi Arabia and Iran are backing political rivals in Lebanon. The March 14 Alliance, which is led by the Future Movement’s Saad Hariri, is supported by Riyadh, while the March 8 Alliance, which includes both the Free Patriotic Movement and Hezbollah, is backed by Tehran.
“Only an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Lebanon will produce a president,” he acknowledged.
His comments come at a difficult time in the Middle East, including increasing tensions between Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran and its affiliates, including the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally designated Hezbollah as a terrorist group in March 2016, with Arab Gulf states also pushing through a similar motion in the Arab League. While Lebanon’s Foreign Minister – headed by March 8 Alliance’s Gebran Basil – notably failed to join Arab condemnations against mob attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran in January. Riyadh responded by suspending a $3 billion aid package for the Lebanese army, with Salam acknowledging ongoing tensions between Lebanon and the Arab Gulf.
Despite this, Salam was keep to stress Lebanon’s ties to the Arab world, addressing the Arab Gulf in particular. “Do not give up on Lebanon and the Lebanese people,” he said.
“We are in an era where the security and stability of the Arab Gulf is a supporter and incubator for Lebanon,\" he said.
As for if any Lebanese political party or figure carried out any action deemed negative to the Arab Gulf, he said: \"These are not representative of Lebanon. These do not express the majority of the Lebanese people who are committed to the best relationship with the Arab Gulf.\"
Regarding the ongoing and future challenges that he faces, from presidential vacuum to diplomatic crisis, Salam pledged: “I will do everything I can to ensure that Lebanon reaches a safe shore.”

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