Lebanon forms government after 10-month deadlock

A caretaker government has run the country since former Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in March.

By REUTERS
February 15, 2014 15:16
3 minute read.
  Lebanese soldiers at site of roadside bomb near the Lebanese-Syrian border July 16, 2013.

Lebanese soldiers at Syria border 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Lebanon announced a new government on Saturday, breaking a 10-month political deadlock during which spillover violence from neighboring Syria worsened internal instability.

A caretaker government has run the country since former Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in March as parties aligned with the Shi'ite Hezbollah movement and a Sunni-led rival bloc pursued a power struggle exacerbated by their support for opposing sides in Syria's almost three-year-old civil war.

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"A government in the national interest was formed in a spirit of inclusivity," new Prime Minister Tammam Salam declared on live television.

He said he hoped the new government would allow Lebanon to hold presidential elections before President Michel Suleiman's mandate expires in May and finally conduct parliamentary polls that were postponed last year due to the political impasse.

"I extend my hand to all the leaders and I am relying on their wisdom to reach these goals and I call on all of them together to make concessions in the interest of our national project," he said.

Parliament designated the Sunni lawmaker as prime minister in April 2013, but he had been unable to form a government for months due to rivalries between the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 bloc and the March 14 alliance, led by the Sunni Future Party.

Among the top posts announced, former Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, from the March 8 bloc, becomes foreign minister. Former Health Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, also from March 8, takes the finance portfolio. Nouhad Machnouk, a March 14 legislator, was named interior minister.



Salam said the new cabinet, which he dubbed a "national interest government" was a mandate for the country to fight its growing security problem, which he linked to Syria.

"We must also deal with our complicated economic and social issues, the most important of which is the growing number of refugees from our Syrian brothers and the burdens this has placed on Lebanon," he said.

Sectarian violence has erupted sporadically in the past year, particularly in the north, and car bombings targeting both security and political targets have increased dramatically, with Hezbollah-dominated areas being the most frequent target.

Salam began another attempt to form a government last month, but was thwarted for weeks due to a dispute over who would hold the energy portfolio, a ministry now more significant due to the discovery of gas off Lebanon's Mediterranean coast.

He had earlier made a deal with political parties that requires all cabinet roles to be rotated among different religious groups in each new government, so that no sect can indefinitely dominate a particular ministry.

The Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Hezbollah ally, had insisted former Energy Minister Bassil keep his post. The dispute was finally resolved with the appointment of Arthur Nazarian, from the FPM-aligned Tashnag, a small Armenian party.

Lebanon, still struggling to recover from its own 1975-1990 civil war, has found its internal divisions worsened by the conflict in Syria, whose sectarian divisions mirror its own.

Hezbollah, a militant and political movement supported by Shi'ite Iran, is one of the most powerful groups in Lebanon and fought an inconclusive war with Israel in 2006. It has sent fighters to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is a Shi'ite offshoot.

The Future party supports the anti-Assad uprising led largely by the Syria's Sunni majority.

Syria's war has aggravated a region-wide struggle for influence involving Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-ruled states against Iran and its Shi'ite allies in Lebanon and Iraq.

The Lebanese cabinet deal could signal that those powers want to stem the wave of violence, which has now spread to Iraq.

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