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Lebanon's new government dominated by Hezbollah

Lebanon has a new coalition government this week, arrived at after five months of backroom negotiations. But, in a manner made possible only in Lebanese politics, the shots are being called by a party with only two of the 30 seats in cabinet.

Hezbollah, labelled a terrorist organization in Canada and the United States, is taking a deceptively low profile in the new government, with good reason.

Western donors don't want to deal with a government that too obviously is run by Hassan Nasrallah, one of Iran's protegés. And the United Nations Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri wants to avoid working with a group some of whose members may soon be indicted for that assassination.

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So the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, who was tipped by Hezbollah to take the job, presides over a government that is bizarre even by Lebanese standards.

For starters, Mr. Mikati rules only over a rump of 12 ministers - those appointed by him, President Michel Suleiman and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. The rump's primary role is to be a constitutional block to the 18-minister majority, preventing it from going too far in important matters such as war and peace. Getting just enough seats to provide such a block was one of the main reasons it took five months to form a government.

Then there's the unusual distribution of ministries between Shia and Sunni Muslims. For decades Shiites and Sunnis have had an equal number of cabinet posts, reflecting the Shiites' hard-won place in Lebanese politics. Not so in this government: Sunnis have seven portfolios; Shiites only five.

And, of course, there's Hezbollah, the undisputed leader of the government, with just two minor cabinet portfolios - Ministry of State and the modest Ministry of Agriculture.

Instead of seats at the table, Hezbollah's dominance is asserted through key allies, especially Michel Aoun, the former commander of the Lebanese Army, now leader of the mostly-Christian Free Patriotic Movement, and Nabih Berri, Speaker of the Parliament and leader of the mostly-Shiite Amal party, a one-time rival to Hezbollah.

It is Gen. Aoun who has the largest bloc in cabinet with eight ministries, including the important portfolios of Justice, Energy and Telecommunications.

"The formation of this government represents a continuation of a trend that started three years ago," says Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. That was when Hezbollah asserted its dominance over Lebanon, taking over the streets of the nation's capital and dictating terms to Saad Hariri and the March 14 coalition then governing the country.

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"By January, 2011," Mr. Salem said, "Hezbollah had decided that it no longer wanted to work with Hariri and sought other means to exercise its influence."

This new government is the outcome "and with that the influence of Syria and Iran."

Gen. Aoun, who may prove to be the key to this government's long-term success or failure, wants power as few others do. As army commander in the late 1980s he attempted to take over the government, ended up battling with Syrian forces during which more than 1,000 people were killed, and fled to exile in France.

Fifteen years later, after Syria left Lebanon, Gen. Aoun returned, started his political movement, reconciled with Syria and became Hezbollah's secret weapon - a Christian party leader who supported the militant Shiites.

Gen. Aoun is hated as a traitor by many of Lebanon's Christians, but Hezbollah is counting on him to achieve major political breakthroughs in elections in 2013. It's made sure he has the political platforms to build on, or else to hang from.

While the Lebanese people hope their government will focus on reviving a moribund economy, there's no getting away from two giant elephants that are in the room.

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One is the UN tribunal expected to announce in July who it is indicting and who it expects the Lebanese government to arrest.

Mr. Mikati says he is committed to Lebanon's international responsibilities including its support for the tribunal, but the prime minister knows the majority of his cabinet does not feel this way.

"This government will not arrest anyone," Mr. Salem said. It then will fall to the UN Security Council to decide what to do. Lebanon could find itself isolated, with badly needed funding from countries such as the United States, cut off.

But if the Special Tribunal is a torpedo heading Lebanon's way, the outcome of events in neighbouring Syria could be even more destructive.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is the crucial link between Hezbollah and Iran, its supreme benefactor. Should the Assad regime fall, Hezbollah will lose pivotal support, as will some of this government's prominent Christian ministers, and all bets in Lebanon are off.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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