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October 27, 2004


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Hezbollah ignored as Lebanon's top three leaders get major government shares

Prime Minister-designate Omar Karami announced a 30-member, half-Muslim-half-Christian Cabinet Tuesday to replace that of billionaire Prime Minister Rafik Hariri who resigned last week after serving for most of the past 14 years. The new government, which includes two female ministers for the first time in the history of Lebanon, is Karami's second after Lebanon's civil war ended in early 1990. His first government was forced out by social riots in 1991.

Newspaper reports made quite a few observations and comments about the new government. The leftist daily As Safir said Wednesday the three top leaders (President Lahoud, House Speaker Nabih Berri and Premier Karami) "shared the portfolios through their representatives and allies." Most papers noted that the majority of the thirty ministers came from the northern Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. Prime Minister Karami himself hails from the northern port city of Tripoli. Fourteen of the 30 ministers joined the government for the first time and six are state ministers without portfolios..

Political forces opposed to Lahoud's regime have remained adamant in their opposition, the newspapers noted. In fact, some have been provoked by the new cabinet formation, but as Karami put it himself, "It could not have been better." For example, As Safir said it could not understand "why Hizbullah was ignored." The Shiite group was not represented in the government, directly or indirectly, the paper said.

North Lebanon ministers (Issam Fares, Suleiman Franjieh, Elias Saba, Sami Mikara and Irahim Dhaher) are considered to be loyal to regime and to Damascus. From the Bekaa came Abdel Rahim Murad, Assem Kansou, Elie Skaff, Ghazi Zueiter and Albert Mansour.

Beirut was "poorly represented" in the new government, according to most reports. A powerful Beirut MP, Tammam Salam, said he declined to take up "the last portfolio at the very last minute." None of former Premier Hariri's bloc was offered any portfolio, "which was taken as a deliberate swipe at Hariri." From Beirut came the following ministers: Adnan Addoum (Justice), Adnan Kassar (economy), Maurice Sehanoui (energy) and Alan Tobourian (state minister).

Significance was given to the choice of Alia Solh to be minister of industry in the new government. Ms. Solh is the aunt of Saudi Arabian multi-billionaire al-Waleed bin Talal, who has recently expressed his personal suppor for the extension of President Lahoud's term in office for another three years. Al-Waleed's increasing involvement in domestic Lebanese affairs has been interpreted by some politicians as an attempt to rival Hariri. Both are holders of duel Lebanese-Saudi nationalities.

Speaker Berri was reported to have insisted on taking five portfolios, but later agreed to give up some in order to retain three services portfolios: Mohammed Khalifa for Heath, Yassin Jaber for public works and Ghazi Zueiter for social affairs.

Although President Lahoud was forced to give up the interior ministry (which was held by his son-in-law Elias Murr and his father Michel Murr for much of the past decade), the head of state is represented in the new government by Jean-Louis Kordahi, Mahmoud Hammoud, Maurice Sehnaoui, Ibrahim Dhaher, Farid Khazen, Naji Boustani and Yousef Salameh, according to As Safir.

The Christian Phalange Party, a major supporter of President Lahoud, is excluded from the new Cabinet. Its leader, Karim Pakradouni, represented the party in the previous cabinet as minister of administrative reform.

Provocative moves were seen against Hizbullah, which allegedly has been ignored, and Druze leader Walid Jumblat, who is strongly opposed to the extension of Lahoud's term in office. Jumblat's rival Talal Arslan was named minister of the displaced.

Salam Refuses

Former Beirut MP Tamam Salam said he refused to take part in the new cabinet of Prime Minister Karami because he was offered a secondary portfolio and he believes that Beirut deserved a better representation, As Safir reported Wednesday. Salam issued a statement Tuesday in response to a comment made by Karami in which the premier said that he snubbed the government because he was not offered one of two portfolios he requested, notably education or public works. "I was surprised by Premier Omar Karami's allegations and I would like to clarify that based on my feeling of public responsibility and in line with my national stance of caring for the problems of the public over the long years of political, I opted once again to place public interest above personal interest," the statement said.

Salam added: "Once again I find myself in front of a political choice which dictates on me to cling to my principles and protect them so that I can protect my position and reputation among my good people in Beirut and all of Lebanon. I cannot just ignore the special and distinctive weight of Beirut and I believe that the representation of the capital in the new government was not up to the expected level which the residents of Beirut deserve and aspire for," he said justifying his refusal to join the cabinet.

"I want to make it clear that Tammam Salam never sought a ministerial post and never asked for favors from any side... I never did that in the past and I will not do it now or in the future," he said. "What happened was that I was contacted at the last minute to be offered the ministry of industry after all other key service portfolios had been distributed and allocated... In fact, I was contacted for personal reasons and calculations made by the people forming the government... I did not like the way I was treated in view of my stance and what I represent and as such I refused the last minute offer of the last ministry," Salam explained.

Media Reaction

In the meantime, the Lebanese broadcast media had a variety of reactions and comments on the new government, which took five days of intensive consultations and contacts to put together, As Safir said Wednesday. Hizbullah's al-Manar television commented that the structure of the cabinet reflected the struggle over shares between the three top officials, notably President Emile Lahoud, Speaker Nabih Berri and Karami. The television commented that "names were changed, portfolios were reshuffled, but the way portfolios are distributed and the struggle over shares in the new cabinet remained as such." It said the cabinet structure also reflected political and economic contradictions at a time Lebanon was passing though a very critical and sensitive period both at the internal and external levels.

Al-Manar noted that President Lahoud retained his share of ministers even increasing it a bit, while Berri boosted his share by winning three key service ministries, namely public works, health and social affairs. The new prime minister also had a good share since he won the ministries of finance and education and Druze leader Talal Arslan increased his quota with two ministers. A distinctive character of the new cabinet is that it includes two women for the first time in Lebanon's political history, namely Layla Solh, the daughter of Lebanon's first post-independence prime minister Riad Solh. Also the Druze representation in the new cabinet is regarded as provocative to Druze overlord Walid Jumblat in addition to the appointment of Naji Boustani, a Christian and staunch rival of Jumblat in his own Chouf mountain stronghold, the television added.

On its part, the Christian LBCI television said the cabinet caused shock-waves throughout the country but "not positive ones." "It is the cabinet of those who were available to take part in it... The figures were brought either from the past or from the unknown with no indication what the future would be," the television said. It quoted Karami as saying, "We could not do better than that" and commented "that is why it is a cabinet of unknown people, or known ones who worked in the dark."

The television noted that Berri lost Amal representation in the cabinet but won several key portfolios to members of his bloc in parliament, who are close to him. The cabinet, however, LBCI commented, "carried a harsh message to Jumblat whereas the Sunni representation for Beirut was poor after Tammam Salam refused to join in."

Berri Won Lion's Share

In the meantime, Berri applauded the cabinet, which he said is good and open. All agree that Berri won the lion's share and he couldn't be happier about it.. He refused opinions that the political parties were kept out of the new government saying: "That is not true... The parties are represented... For example the Baath Party, the National Syrian Social Party and us, as a parliament bloc, are represented in the cabinet." Berri also opposes views, which say that the new government will not be able to confront looming political and economic challenges. "On the contrary... it is a capable government, especially since it is open to all without exception and has extended its hand to all factions," he said.

Berri expressed great satisfaction over the new government and vowed to cooperate with Prime Minister Omar Karami to the maximum to facilitate his mission as much as possible. He said deputy speaker Elie Firzli could no longer retain that position in parliament after he has been appointed minister of information.

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