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Salam was the son of Salim Salam , the scion of a prominent Sunni Muslim family who was a prominent politician both under Ottoman rule and then during the French Mandate. The younger Salam got his first taste of politics in 1941, when he started campaigning against French and British mandates in the Levant and Palestine. He was joined in this endeavour by Abdel-Hamid Karami , a legislator from Tripoli.
In 1943, Salam was elected to the National Assembly from a Beirut constituency. After founding Middle East Airlines in 1945, Salam was appointed Minister of the Interior in 1946 - his first cabinet position. Six years later, he became Prime Minister for the first time, on 14 September 1952. His administration lasted only four days; under the pressure of strikes and demonstrations, President Béchara El-Khoury was forced to resign. Salam's government resigned too. He was recalled on 1 May 1953 by the new President, Camille Chamoun (whose election Salam had supported); this time, his term of office lasted 106 days, until 16 August.
Salam was appointed Oil Minister by Prime Minister Abdullah Aref al-Yafi in 1956, and negotiated deals the Aramco and Tapeline companies to connect the Zahrani and Baddawi refineries with oilfields in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. President Chamoun's support for the British, French, and Israeli invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis, however, led both Yafi and Salam to resign in protest. He participated in demonstrations that followed, was wounded, and was subsequently placed under arrest while recovering in hospital. He was released after a five-day hunger strike, however.
In the parliamentary election of 1957, Salam lost his seat, as did Yafi, Rashid Karami (Abdel-Hamid Karami's son), and Kamal Jumblatt. Allegations of vote rigging were never proved, but that the constituencies were gerrymandered was little disputed. The four formed an opposition bloc, which led an armed rebellion for five months in 1958 against President Chamoun's reported plans to seek a second term and to join he pro-Western Baghdad Pact. The rebellion ended only with the election of General Fuad Chehab, who was perceived as a moderate, as President in September; Salam called off the rebellion with what was to become his trademark slogan: "No winner, no loser."
Salam became Prime Minister again on 2 August 1960, and remained in office until 31 October 1961. He broke with President Chehab, however, over what he saw as the granting of undue powers to the police. Throughout the 1960s he opposed the "police state" that he accused Chehab and his chosen successor, Charles Hélou, of trying to establish, and in 1968 he spoke out against political interference by military intelligence. His opposition to Chehabist rule intensified, and in 1970, he helped to assemble a parliamentary coalition that elected Suleiman Frangieh to the presidency, by one vote, over the Chehabist candidate Elias Sarkis.
Frangieh appointed Salam Prime Minister for the fourth time on 13 October 1970. This administration, which lasted until 25 April 1973, was his longest. He fell out with Frangieh and resigned as Prime Minister in the wake of an Israeli commando raid in Beirut, which killed three Palestinian leaders, in protest against Frangieh's refusal to dismiss the army commander, General Iskandar Ghanem , for negligence. Salam declared that he would not accept the post of Prime Minister again.
Out of office, Salam remained influential. In the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, he mediated between the United States envoy, Philip Habib and the PLO chairman Yasser Arafat, securing the removal of the Palestinian military presence in Lebanon. He opposed the election to the Presidency of Bachir Gemayel, but was reconciled to him after the election and began working with him on a number of reform proposals. When Gemayel was assassinated on 14 September of that year, without having taken office, Salam supported his brother, Amine Gemayel, for the Presidency and persuaded most Muslim National Assembly members to vote for him.
In 1985, Salam went into exile in Geneva, Switzerland, after surviving two assassination attempts. He had angered the Syrian government and hardline Muslim groups with the conciliatory stands he had taken at peace conferences held at Geneva and Lausanne the year before, and he did not feel safe to return to Lebanon until 1994. From exile, however, he played a key role in the negotiations that led to the Taif Agreement of 1989, which eventually led to the end of the civil war.
A noted philanthropist, Salam headed Makassed , an educational and healthcare charity, from 1957 to 1982, when he was succeeded by his son Tammam , who is now a parliamentarian in his own right. In addition to Tammam, Salam had two other sons (Faisal, who was killed in an automobile accident in 1996, and Amr , a businessman), and two daughters (Thurayya and Anbara) with his wife, Tamima Reda Mardam-Beik , whom he married in 1941. He died of a heart attack on 21 January 2000.
|- style="text-align: center;" | width="30%" |Preceded by:
Khaled Chehab | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Prime Minister of Lebanon
1953 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
Abdullah Aref al-Yafi
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