The appointment of Raya Haffar El Hassan as Lebanon’s Interior Minister in Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s new government went viral locally and regionally. Hassan is the Arab world's first female to hold this position, prising open a wider foothold for women in its overwhelmingly male political scene. Though Hassan has already held top jobs — including finance minister in 2009-2011 — her appointment to a portfolio managing security was hailed as a step forward for women in Lebanese politics.
Haffar is from north Lebanon, specifically from Tripoli, and her career in the public sector began in 1995. She has a bachelor degree in Business Administration from the American University of Beirut and worked for many years as a consultant in the Ministry of Finance and Economy until she was appointed Minister of Finance in 2009. Today, she is responsible for security, local development, prisons, preparation for elections, among other sensitive issues.
Q. This is the first time a woman assumes this ministerial position. What are the challenges you expect to face, considering the Interior Ministry is sovereign, and that you are responsible for security and are in direct contact with the public?
I don’t see a new challenge because the Interior Ministry is a sovereign one. I previously headed a sovereign ministry, the Ministry of Finance, so nothing has changed for me. Regarding the fact that this ministry is concerned with the country’s security, I still haven’t felt any challenges. On the contrary, perhaps being a woman will give a new approach to the security portfolio in terms of handling things smoothly.
Q. Which security portfolios will you work on?
It is true I do not have a security background, but I believe the most important thing is for relations to be good and for there to be clear coordination between the Internal Security Forces Directorate General and the General Directorate of Public Security. This framework was established at the meeting I held with Director General of the Internal Security Forces Major General Imad Osman and Director General of Public Security Major General Abbas Ibrahim. As long there remains coordination between the security forces and as long as it is transparent and within a clear framework, I do not think that we will face any problems in the future.
Q- Do you find it difficult to transition from the world of finance to the world of security?
I can say that all things are under control, especially as I’ve put in place a that includes all the aid received by the directorates of public security and internal security within a single strategy that ensures the integration of all these initiatives. I believe I have the ability to accomplish that.
Q- Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s decision to appoint a woman as interior minister is a challenge. Do you feel that you have a responsibility towards the Prime Minister and Lebanese women to prove that they are capable of assuming decision-making posts?
PM Hariri has always been at the forefront of women empowerment, and he is known to be one of the biggest believers in women’s capabilities. He already had faith in me when he appointed me to become minister of finance and today he renewed this trust by appointing me as the interior minister. Of course, whatever my position is, I will work very seriously and will not underestimate the responsibility given to me. I am known to work seriously and with transparency within an institutional framework, hence no matter what position I am appointed in, I would follow the same approach to my work.
Q- The issue surrounding detained Islamists is considered one of the thorny topics in the interior ministry. What steps will you take in this regard?
The issue of Islamist detainees was mentioned in the Ministerial Declaration in a clear article which promises to enact an amnesty law for prisoners who’d not receive a fair trial. A draft law is under way and it will be introduced when it is appropriate. The government is working hard to close this file, which in turn will reduce the recent tensions in prisons. In my opinion, the solution for this issue is on the right track and we are waiting for the decision to be taken and introduced to all political parties to be approved as soon as possible.
Q- There is a consensus that the status of prisons in Lebanon is unacceptable and tragic on all levels, especially with regard to overcrowding and humanitarian standards. Is there a plan to improve the status and organisation of prisons in the country?
Prisons in Lebanon do not uphold the minimum standards of human dignity of prisoners. Not to mention that this issue affects Lebanon’s image abroad and to what extent it respects human rights. The first step I have taken in this regard was to hold a meeting with Major General Osman, in which we discussed the prisons’ status and what can be done, especially since this falls under the remit of the ministry of justice. But in light of the current situation, we have to work with the security forces to carry out amendments until this file is returned to the Ministry of Justice as stated by law.
I am currently arranging provisions by ambassadors and the international community for this purpose. There are training provisions for some prison governors in addition to many other provisions, all of which fall within the framework of improving standards in prisons.
As for building new prisons, I would like to note that former Interior Minister Nohad El Machnouk launched a tender through the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) to build a new prison in Mejdlaya, northern Lebanon.
I will follow up with the Council to check if the funds allocated to this project have been provided. This way, we would have contributed to solving a small part in this issue. In the long term, we will also provide credits, support and funding in order to build new prisons and alleviate the overcrowding in the current prisons on the one hand and safeguard the prisoners’ rights, dignity and integrity, on the other hand.
Q- The most notable thing about your predecessor’s tenure was his success in security and terrorism. Will this also be your priority particularly as Lebanon faces continuous security threats?
Proactive measures taken by the security services have certainly contributed in recent years to the stability of Lebanon’s security. Today, although the country faces many challenges, the situation is stable. We must continue on the same path, and coordination among all the security services must continue in addition to moving forward in these proactive measures. As long as the internal security forces and the public security are seriously and professionally engaged, we will be able to maintain the same path.
Q- By-elections are expected to take place in Tripoli next May following the dismissal of MP Dima Jamali from office. This will mark your first test in office. How are your preparing?
Preparations for holding by-elections in Tripoli started when the Constitutional Council issued its decision and an electoral body was put in place. Parliamentary elections have already been held in every area in Lebanon, and they have succeeded despite the existence of some gaps. Therefore, the task will be easier this time especially that these elections will only be held in one small area. I don’t think we will face any problem because the process will be managed by the same people who ran the parliamentary elections in the interior ministry last June, and we will benefit from their experience. Moreover, regulations on preparations and actions that must be taken are also clear.
Q- Regarding the issue of indiscriminate shootings, are you going to make strict decisions in this matter considering the recent rise in victims of this crime?
The Internal Security Forces are working to identify and prosecute the perpetrators, and strict legal measures are taken against them. However, the problem remains in prosecuting shooters from the Palestinian camps, which don’t fall under the remit of the Internal Security Forces. Therefore, we will find a solution to address this problem not only through the interior ministry but also on a larger scale.
Q- A major political debate has been circulating in Lebanon over the issue of Syrian refugees and attempts by some political forces to normalize relations with the Syrian regime under the pretext that Syrian refugees need to return from Lebanon. What is your opinion on this?
My position is clear, and it is similar to that of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. We don’t want to engage in any kind of official contact with the Syrian regime before reaching a political solution in Syria and before the Arab League adopts a clear decision regarding this regime. Although the issue is controversial among political parties in Lebanon, our [The Future Movement Party] political position is clear.
Q- You accepted the challenge and promised to do all you can to improve and change people’s lives for the better. But how will you deal with political interventions that may prevent the implementation of certain reform decisions?
If political interventions occur, they will certainly hinder the interior ministry’s work to provide as many services as it can for the citizens. I can also see the vast gap that still exists between citizens and state institutions, and this reflects in citizens’ lack of confidence in these institutions. We are concerned along with all political parties to rebuild this trust between citizens and the state. It is, therefore, necessary to take into consideration the citizens’ needs and improve their living conditions.
This is why I don’t think that any political party will hinder any work that would develop the interior ministry’s initiatives and improve serving citizens. On the contrary, I believe we will receive support for our projects and plans.
Q- Are there plans to address road traffic jams and provide traffic safety?
It is noticeable that the number of victims of traffic accidents has recently increased in Lebanon, so addressing the issue of traffic safety is one of the ministry’s priorities. I will hold meetings with the concerned NGOs, the National Road Safety Council and security forces in the next few days, to examine ways of doubling the number of security elements at certain times to reduce traffic accidents and to consider other measures that can be taken as soon as possible.
Q- The moment your name was announced as Interior Minister, it went viral on social media with many welcoming this step. Some activists even described you as the “Iron Woman” and there were more light heated comments too, particularly as wives in Lebanon are jokingly referred to as the ‘Interior Minister’ in Lebanon. Will you support women in Lebanon?
As an interior minister serve all citizens, whether men or women. But today, the ministry is receiving complaints from women more than men because issues related to women were not taken very seriously previously. It also seems that the fact that this post was filled by a woman motivated other women and gave them the confidence to speak louder.
Q- What about the negative comments and criticisms related to the appointment of a woman in a position that is associated with security? Some people even considered PM Hariri’s decision a risky one.
I don’t see this step as risky in any way, and it is wrong to classify jobs and positions in terms of whether they are suitable for women or not. Women can handle any post assigned to them, and the proof is the fact that they assume the most important positions in all parts of the world and they even head states and governments. The Lebanese woman is totally capable of assuming decision-making positions, and whoever questions that diminishes Lebanese and Arab women’s capabilities.
Q- What are the women’s rights issues that you will be working on? And will the issues of women passing on their Lebanese nationality to their children and domestic violence among your priorities?
The Future Movement is preparing a bill on Lebanese women’s right to grant citizenship to their children. I will do my best to support this, especially as some political parties have rejected it. It is time to give the Lebanese woman this right, and this issue must be tackled with awareness and responsibility and through discussions with political parties that have certain concerns. Thus, we must find a mechanism to overcome and understand these concerns because this right can no longer be neglected.
Regarding other issues related to women, especially domestic violence, police stations that receive complaints from violated women should handle these complaints with responsibility and know how to deal with this issue and how to help the victims. This requires specific training for those officers. Women also need to be reassured that they have a safe haven and that they can file a complaint and resort to security services whenever they are subjected to domestic violence.
Q- What do you promise the Lebanese citizens?
I will try my best to change how Lebanese citizens view the Interior Ministry and the stereotype that it is only concerned with security and the implementation of laws. I will make sure it becomes closer to people. Providing citizens’ needs and facilitating their lives are among its responsibilities in addition to ensuring law enforcement and maintaining security.