Raya Al Hassan: as first female Arab interior minister, I need to act as a role model

In an interview with The National, senior Lebanese politician discusses the unique challenges she faces in her new role

epa07347510 Newly Minister of Interior Raya Hassan looks on during a handover ceremony at the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities in Beirut, Lebanon, 06 February 2019. Raya Hassan is the first Female Arab Interior Minister in the Middle East.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
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The first woman interior minister in the Arab world, Lebanon's Raya Al Hassan says she will do her best to act as a role model for women while tackling issues “close to her heart” such as security, women’s rights and freedom of speech.

"I'm very proud I was appointed minister of interior. Because I'm the first woman, I need to act as a role model and prove that women in positions that are usually held by men can do the job as well, if not better, than men," she told The National in a phone interview.

Mrs Al Hassan, 51, says she became a public servant “by accident” when late prime minister Rafiq Hariri, who was killed in 2005 in a car bombing, brought her over with a team of employees from a bank that he owned, Bank Med, to help set up the finance ministry in 1992, two years after the end of the 15-year civil war. “The ministry was practically non-existent at the time because of the civil war," she says. “I didn’t plan to become a politician, but I ended up doing that for the past 25 years in different ways. I started to like it because I believe it’s our responsibility to make a difference."

I have political and administrative capital. The security aspect is still new to me but with time, I don't believe this should be a problem

Mrs Al Hassan then worked in the economy ministry from 2000 to 2003 with the then minister Basil Fleihan, who was also killed in 2005 in one of a string of political assassinations that rocked Lebanon at the time. She worked on preparing international conferences to win financial support for Lebanon, dubbed Paris 1 (2001), Paris 2 (2002) and Paris 3 (2007), and developed a reputation for being efficient.

In 2005, Mrs Al Hassan moved to the prime minister’s office, before becoming finance minister in 2009, which was also a first for a woman in the Arab world.

"I remember the Hezbollah sit-ins in front of the Serail [the prime minister's headquarters] in 2006. There were megaphones, songs and lights being beamed into our windows. We were very anxious, but she continued working as if nothing happened. She said it didn't change the fact that we had a lot to do," says Asma Andraos, who worked at the Serail with Mrs Al Hassan. "She's good at bringing people together to work with her."

epa07347512 Newly Minister of Interior Raya Hassan speaks during a handover ceremony at the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities in Beirut, Lebanon, 06 February 2019. Raya Hassan is the first Female Arab Interior Minister in the Middle East.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH

These past few years, Mrs Al Hassan has been assigned to develop a special economic zone in Tripoli, her native city. “It was emotionally very gratifying," she says. “We mobilised financing, finalised infrastructure, and developed regulatory framework. I’m happy with our progress." Her successor has not yet been nominated.

Despite being surprised by her latest appointment, Mrs Al Hassan says that her long experience in government helps her feel comfortable in the new role. “I have political and administrative capital. The security aspect is still new to me but with time, I don’t believe this should be a problem," she says.

As minister of interior, she has several priorities: tackling traffic violations to ease the country’s heavy traffic, upholding freedom of speech and defending women’s rights. “I’m going to be very forceful with security agencies to protect these women that are being violated," she says. “I’m known to be a no-nonsense kind of person and have zero tolerance towards corruption."

When she took office, her first move was to order the removal of concrete security blocks placed in front of the ministry building in a busy area of Beirut, allowing traffic to move freely again.

Her tough anti-corruption stance is particularly appreciated in Lebanon, where nepotism is rampant. Lebanon was ranked 138th out of 180 countries in Transparency International's latest Corruption Perception Index.

“Her attitude is very rare in politics here," says Mrs Andraos. “She will never make use of her job to give favours to her friends, and I know this because I’ve tried. She tells us to not even ask her."

What makes Mrs Al Hassan’s success more notable is that women’s participation in politics in Lebanon has been historically minimal. The latest government is a record breaker with four women, overseeing the ministries of interior, energy, administrative development and women’s affairs.

Politics in Lebanon is also often a family affair and women are no exception, such as long-serving members of parliament Bahia Hariri, sister of Rafiq Hariri, and Strida Geagea, wife of Lebanese Forces party chief Samir Geagea.

Mrs Al Hassan has no family connections but has political ties to Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and was appointed deputy president of the party in 2016.

She recognises that being a woman in politics can be tough. “You learn to deal with being talked over by men. Sometimes you have to be forceful and speak your mind, and sometimes you have to be diplomatic and non-confrontational, maybe smile here and there and let them say what they want to say. But at the end of the day, you try to discreetly pass your message or implement your action," she says.

Newly appointed Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, right, reviews an honor guard during a ceremony held on her first day at the interior ministry, in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2019. El Hassan is one of four women in the new 30-member Cabinet, becoming the country and the Arab world's first female official in charge of the powerful security agencies. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Juggling her family life with politics has also proved a challenge. “Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise," she laughs. “Of course, it’s not easy. You have to fall back on the support of your extended family: my mother, my husband, my friends, to try to alleviate my absence on the children."

Mrs Al Hassan has three daughters aged 25, 23 and 14. “The two eldest ones have been through this before when they were young, but my 14-year-old is my worry now. I’ll do my best to have quality time with them every evening."