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Raya Haffar al-Hassan, the First Woman of Lebanese Politics

Lebanon- Raya Haffar al-Hassan
Raya al-Hasan, the first female Interior Minister in Lebanon and the Arab world, attends the first cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut on February 2, 2019. Photo AFP

Back in 2009, she was the first woman appointed Minister of Finance in Lebanon. Now, she has been named first female Minister of Interior and Municipalities, making her the first Lebanese woman to attain such an important position in the government. A first step for the small country, and a big one for Raya Haffar Al Hassan.

Born in 1967 into a Sunni family, Raya Al Hassan is currently part of the March 14 alliance, a coalition of political parties united by their opposition to the Syrian regime, headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri through the Future Movement, also led by Hariri. She is married to Janah Al Hassan and has three children. On January 31 2019, she was officially appointed as Minister of Interior and Municipalities in the new government, composed of 30 members. It was formed after almost nine months of deadlock following the May 2018 general elections. This appointment also makes her the first female official in charge of powerful security agencies in the Arab world.

Although she is in charge of security, her background is in trade and finance. She received a bachelor degree in business administration from the American University of Beirut in 1987 and an MBA in finance and investments in 1990 from George Washington University in the US. Since then, she has had a fruitful career, both in private and public institutions. She started out by being assistant to the Minister of Finance and Coordinator of Implementation for Fiscal Activities between 1995 and 1999, then became assistant relationship manager and senior credit officer at a private Lebanese bank. She’s also touched international development with her work for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) as a Program Specialist for the Economic Governance and Pro-Poor portfolio in 2005. She is used to being the first in certain positions, and she has chaired one of the country’s biggest private public design projects aimed at developing the port city of Tripoli.

She didn’t stick to private banking and moved on to other public missions, notably as an adviser to the Minister of Economy and Trade from 2000 to 2003 and office member of the Prime Minister from 2005 to 2009, leading different projects and supervising expenditure management reforms. Her career was consecrated in 2009 when she was appointed Minister of Finance, a first for women in Lebanon, and a second time in the new government of 2019.

Her new appointment is an honor that Al Hassan acknowledges and takes further with professionalism. At the handover ceremony from her predecessor Nohad Machnouk on February 6, she said: “As the first female minister of Interior, I have to prove the woman’s ability to assume an exceptional portfolio”, adding: “I will seek to have my own very special touch”.

She said her priorities would be to improve cooperation between national agencies, to protect human rights and tackle Lebanon’s famous traffic problems, as well as making a point of ameliorating conditions in Lebanese prisons and addressing domestic violence and more broadly violence against women. But her main mission will be to manage multiple, often competing security agencies, and maintain stability in a tricky situation: until recently, the country had to deal with militant groups and spillover in border areas from the war next door in Syria.

Her first step as Minister of the Interior has been to get rid of a number of heavy roadblocks, set up for security reasons, which have for a long time disrupted the flow of traffic in central Beirut, including in front of the ministry. She has also become the head of prisons and the Internal Security Forces, both of which have been dogged by allegations of human rights violations. The ISF also continues to persecute LGBTQ people and has been accused of torture by organizations such as Human Rights Watch. Yet Al Hassan has claimed that security measures “should not interfere with people’s freedoms and the freedom of expression”. Maybe that will indicate a change for good in the Lebanese authorities’ ways of handling security, but it is too early to say if she will have the leverage and freedom to act as she promised.

Her nomination is part of a broader will by the State representatives to improve representation of women in politics, as PM Saad Hariri declared in Dubai on February 10: “Lebanon needs to get used to women taking on big roles in the country”. A recent survey showed that more than 80% of the 847 respondents agree that women are underrepresented in Lebanese politics. Yet of the same group, only 65% think that women should be able to sit in the country’s Cabinet. The number of women in the government at this time is at a record high, with four women instead of two previously. Alongside Al Hassan, Violette Safadi is State Minister for women’s affairs, a post previously held by a man; May Chidiac, who lost her arm and leg in an assassination attempt in a 2005 bombing, is State Minister for administrative development, and Nada Boustani is Energy and Water Minister.

After her appointment, Al Hassan thanked her mentor and political leader Saad Hariri by saying: “To be honest, it was a surprise but I am proud too of course […] Mr Hariri has trusted me twice by giving me two difficult ministries. It demonstrates his trust in women’s capabilities.”

In an interview given on TV on March 2012, Al Hassan declared that two women in the Cabinet at the time were not enough, adding that: “We know for a fact that it is always better to have more women participation in public institutions in general and of course in the Council of Ministers […] And having posts that are involved in policy making and not just having no portfolios”.

Pressure is heavy on Al Hassan’s shoulders, as she will have to manage not only an important and risky ministry in a region always shaken up by war and conflicts, but to prove that as a woman, she can do it as well as any male counterpart. Al Hassan’s example and lead could change the face of female political representation in Lebanon. It is a lot of pressure to handle, but she seems prepared for the challenge.

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