Lebanon’s first female interior minister is undaunted by task

“It’s a big responsibility but, if you are able to make a change, then you can do the work (regardless of gender)," said Lebanese Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Lebanon’s Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan attends a handover ceremony at the ministry in Beirut, February 6. (Reuters)
Key portfolio. Lebanon’s Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan attends a handover ceremony at the ministry in Beirut, February 6. (Reuters)

Lebanese Interior Minister Raya el-Hassan, the first Arab woman to assume the key government portfolio, said she is keen on setting a standard for other women while working to improve the image of the ministry itself.

Being a woman, she said, does not undermine her ability to tackle the large spectrum of files under her authority which, in addition to security, include local governance, law enforcement, prisons and human rights.

“Women have fared as well as men — if not better — in even more male-oriented positions in the world. In the Arab region it is more complex because of our patriarchal society but there is always a first time. We need to break the glass ceiling and try to effect change in the mentality of the society,” Hassan said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.

“It’s a big responsibility but, if you are able to make a change, then you can do the work (regardless of gender),” she said.

While security remains her top priority, the 51-year-old politician and mother of three, is determined to make the ministry more people friendly and centred on serving the public.

“At the Interior Ministry we have direct contact with the people and I believe that we need to change the image of the ministry for the people to feel that they have a recourse for complaints or reservations about any issue be it human rights, the way security people treat them, freedom of expression, et cetera,” Hassan said.

“It’s not going to happen overnight. It is a transformation process that would take months if not years but it is important to start somewhere.”

Hassan, an ally of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and member of his Future Movement, said she spent much time digesting information and assessing deficiencies in each of the portfolios pertaining to the Interior Ministry.

“I don’t claim I would be able to sort everything but under each file we can identify quick wins that can hopefully unleash a momentum to build on down the line,” she said.

As minister of interior, she has a gamut of priorities varying from addressing traffic violations, easing the country’s traffic congestion and upgrading road safety, improving prison conditions, upholding freedom of expression and defending human rights.

Despite limited funding, quick fixes such as enforcing traffic laws, separating juveniles from adult prisoners, ensuring respect of basic human rights at police stations, can be achieved in the short term, Hassan said.

Her first act on taking office was to order the removal of concrete security blocks in front of the ministry building in a busy area of Beirut, allowing traffic to move more freely.

The more intricate file of local governance, which requires institutional changes, is a longer-term project, Hassan said.

“I don’t allege to have quick fixes here. With more than 900 municipalities across Lebanon, each with long-standing issues, you need a strategic framework to identify needs and development priorities. However, I think we need to have a planning framework of some sort so that we can move ahead.”

Hassan, who has set a precedent as finance minister (2009-11), touched off the first controversy since her appointment by voicing support to the establishment of civil marriage in Lebanon, drawing backlash from religious authorities.

“I believe in civil marriage but am not advocating for it nor standing against it, I am just saying that any topic should be discussed and then it is the decision of the parliament to approve or not,” Hassan said.

In Lebanon, no civil code exists to regulate personal status issues, such as marriage and divorce. Rather, such matters are governed by 15 religious laws, overseen by associated courts depending on a person’s religious affiliation.

Despite the complexities of the Lebanese political system, Hassan is counting on the government’s support, notably from Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Hariri and parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri, to effect the change she is seeking.

“I was given assurances that they are behind me in implementing the law. Any change should happen progressively. It is important to start addressing islands of reforms hoping that these will come together to create a catalyst,” she said.

Despite being surprised by her appointment, Hassan said that her long experience in government was helping her feel comfortable in the new role. “I have been working within the public sector for the last 25 years. It is still the same bureaucracy, the same public administration, the same political players and the same dynamics but a different file,” she said.

Holder of a master’s degree in finance and investments from George Washington University, Hassan was in charge of developing a special economic zone in her native city of Tripoli before her latest appointment. She also worked as an adviser to the minister of economy and trade (2000-03) and assistant to the minister of finance (1995-99).