Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
27 Jan. - 2 Feb. 2000
Issue No. 466
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Salam bid farewell

By Ranwa Yehia

Lebanon bid farewell to Saeb Salam, the last of the leaders of the country's 1943 independence, at a funeral attended by hundreds of mourners last Saturday. The six-time prime minister died on Friday of a heart attack, just four days after celebrating his 95th birthday.

Salam, also a Beirut parliamentary representative (MP) for more than four decades, was known for his political charisma. Through the force of his personality, he was able to effortlessly mobilise people for or against governments.

Political leaders from throughout Lebanon paid tribute to the politician, including President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Salim Al-Hoss. Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad sent a letter of sympathy to the Salam family, while Al-Assad's son, Colonel Bashar, paid his condolences to Salam's son, Beirut MP Tammam Salam, on Sunday, highlighting Syria's support for the Salam family.

Lebanese officials announced three days of mourning for the former premier and ordered that flags be flown at half-mast. All of the country's 13 newspapers published front-page editorials mourning the independence leader.

The Saturday edition of the leading Beirut daily An-Nahar, carried a piece written by retired Editor-in-Chief Ghassan Tueini, who was a minister in Salam's 1970 "Youth Cabinet," describing the former premier as a person who "not once despaired over Lebanese unity." Tueini said: "When governments were formed or dissolved and when the people of Beirut were paralysed with confusion, they sought [Salam's] house for guidance and security."

The same edition of this paper carried a front page editorial written by former President Charles Helou who said he felt Lebanon's millennium ended on Friday rather than 20 days earlier. "That is because Saeb Salam represented Lebanon's image in the past 100 years," Helou said.

Talal Salman, Editor-in-Chief of As-Safir, Lebanon's second daily newspaper, described Salam as one of the country's most popular premiers. "Perhaps he is, after Riad Al-Solh, the official who was most successful in dealing with the media and in presenting a particular image of himself to people on a daily basis through wearing his customary carnation, carrying his cigar and expounding unforgettable slogans," Salman said.

Salam was born in 1905 to Salim Salam, a leading politician in then Ottoman-governed, and later French-ruled Beirut. Influenced by his father's involvement in politics, Salam kicked off his political career in 1936 by managing the Arab nationalist leader Riad Al-Solh's campaign for parliament. Al-Solh later became the first prime minister of independent Lebanon.

Shortly before Lebanon's independence was declared on 22 November 1943, Salam was elected an MP for Beirut for the first time. He played a key role in the election of Beshara Al-Khoury, the first president of an independent Lebanon.

In 1945, Salam established Lebanon's national air carrier, Middle East Airlines, and a year later received his first cabinet post as interior minister. In 1952, he was appointed prime minister, but his cabinet lasted for four days only, as President Al-Khoury came under pressure by the opposition, which accused the regime of corruption. Al-Khoury stepped down a few days later.

Saeb Salam
(photo: AP)

A supporter of Camille Chamoun's presidential bid following Al-Khoury's resignation, Salam served as Chamoun's first prime minister before stepping down after a few months. Salam resigned in protest against Chamoun's pro-West affiliations in the wake of the 1956 attack by Britain, France and Israel on Egypt.

After losing their parliamentary seats in the allegedly rigged elections of 1957, Salam, Progressive Socialist Party leader Kamal Jumblatt along with other political leaders formed an opposition bloc. When it was reported that Chamoun intended to join the pro-Western Baghdad Pact and run for another term as head of state, the four leaders led an armed rebellion that lasted for five months in 1958. The rebellion ended with the election of army commander General Fouad Chehab as president. Salam announced the end of the rebellion with his famous slogan: "No winner, no loser."

He formed two cabinets during Chehab's term but later fell out with the president and his successor, Charles Helou, accusing them of establishing a police state.

Salam formed the "Youth Cabinet" under President Suleiman Franjieh in 1970. After three Palestinian leaders were killed in an attack by Israeli commandos in Beirut in 1973 and Franjieh refused to dismiss army commander General Iskandar Ghanem for negligence, Salam stepped down, announcing that he "divorced" the prime ministry.

A moderate during the civil war and an advocate of national unity, Salam also focused on philanthropic and charitable activities.

In 1982, he brokered an agreement between US envoy Philip Habib and Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat that ended the Palestinian military presence in Lebanon three months after the Israeli invasion.

Salam also played a key role in brokering the 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the Lebanese civil war the following year. He moved to Geneva in 1985 after two assassination attempts and did not return home until 1994.

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