Raya el-Hassan plans to focus on human rights and prison reform

Diligent, methodical, hardworking and discreet, the new Interior Minister is not afraid of difficult tasks.

Raya el-Hassan works twelve hours a day and reviews all her files on Saturdays. Mohamed Azakir / Reuters

The first arab women appointed as interior minister, Raya El Hassan, has already gotten to work defining the priorities for the beginning of her tenure. Early on, her favorable position on civil marriage provoked the anger of Dar al-Fatwa, but she prefers not to talk about the subject in the media. Instead, she is focusing on what’s in front of her, starting with some of the hardest tasks that fall under the authority of her ministry. In an interview with L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ), she confided that it will take two to three months for her to get a handle on all of the portfolios in the Ministry of Interior, one of the most difficult assignments in the government.

On security, El Hassan wants to increase cooperation between the security services reporting to her, namely the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and the General Security (GS), a task that no minister has been able to accomplish before. Fighting terrorism will also continue to be an important priority, and she plans to address three main social issues during her time on the job: the situation in prisons, human rights and freedoms and domestic violence.

"The Ministry of the Interior will remain in charge of prisons, for now. We need to get working on the central prison of Roumieh as well as the other ones in the regions; women's prisons; those meant for underage prisoners, some of which share cells with adults. Indeed, some projects have been implemented by my predecessors, but much remains to be done. It is necessary to protect the teenagers, to rehabilitate the prisoners so that they can be part of society once they get out and therefore avoid recurring offenses,” she explained to OLJ, adding: “The international community, especially the European Union, is ready to help in this context.”

To accomplish these goals, El Hassan will have to raise funds for her ministry. She is reaching out to accredited ambassadors in Lebanon and wants to meet with representatives of civil society organizations who are playing an important role on some of these issues.

Combating domestic violence and promoting road safety are also among El Hassan’s priorities when it comes to social issues. "It is unacceptable that people are still dying on the roads,” she said. “In the last two years alone, three mothers I know have lost their children. The law exists. It must be applied.”

Shelters for women

"I was very clear from the day my term started that there will be no indulgence towards those guilty of domestic abuse,” El Hassan stated. “Women are encouraged to report the violence. Progress has been made in this aspect, but something critical is still missing: shelters for women who want to leave the marital home to protect themselves. Efforts will be made in this direction,” she added.

The minister will also push for a bill that would allow Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese to pass their citizenship to their children to be voted in Parliament. Asked if this law could exclude women married to Palestinians, El Hassan answered: "In life, nothing is ever perfect. We cannot have everything we want. We must give and take, make compromises.” This applies to political life as well as professional or private life, she continued: "That's one of the things I taught my children. Happiness is never perfect”

El Hassan is also planning to address the issue of human rights and liberties, starting with freedom to protest. Asked about torture in prison or during interrogation, she answered: "I will start meetings with all those concerned. We have signed conventions against torture. Laws exist. They must be respected,” she said.

Asked about the cybercrimes issue, as the cybercrimes office has been arresting more and more people for posting their opinions on social media, El Hassan says she is planning to talk to the people in charge of the office before deciding on a course of action.

Complaints offices for citizens

At 52 years old, this is her second term as a minister, and she is as hardworking as she is discreet. She worked diligently during her first tenure as Minister of Finance, from 2009 to 2011, to increase cooperation between her ministry and the Ministry of Economy, despite there being political differences. She also passed laws to encourage the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). But her term ultimately ended in frustration. "The ministry team was neck deep into work when the government resigned,” she recalled.

In addition to working on security and social issues, El Hassan is planning to collaborate with municipalities to encourage development projects. "It should start with the Ministry of Finance, which will have to release the funds for municipalities. Concretely, we will start by setting up complaints offices for citizens in the mohafazat to identify problems and encourage cooperation between the various parties”, she says. The ultimate goal is to encourage decentralization.

Despite her ambitious plans, the El Hassan doesn’t want to get ahead of herself. She plans to work diligently and methodically. "I have to read, write, understand, assimilate. I have been doing this since my college years,” she said. "Currently, I work ten to twelve hours a day. On Saturdays, I work half a day because I have to review and assimilate all the records of the past week… With this ministry, I probably learn 7,000 new pieces of information every day. I must memorize them, reflect on what I have learned. So I need quiet, which I find every morning from 5:30 to 6:30. During that hour, I mentally review everything I learned the day before.”

Long ago, El Hassan learned that women always have to work harder than men to prove themselves. She also wants to live up to the trust that Prime Minister Saad Hariri has placed in her, as he she did when she was Minister of Finance. Misogyny was the norm during her previous tenure, and El Hassan had to endure many inappropriate comments. The Ministry of Interior seems to be different. "So far, everything is going smoothly. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the people who work there come from military institutions where, no matter what the hierarchy, it is respected," she said.

El Hassan has been navigating unequal gender dynamics from a young age, including in her own family. Her brother left to the United States when he was very young. "Every time he would come back to Lebanon, my mother would treat him like a prince. My sister and I even nicknamed him ‘prince’ to tease him,” she joked, adding that it is thanks to her parents that she became the woman she is today. "My father was an engineer and my mother a director at the Ministry of Tourism. They taught us hard work leads to success, and they have always encouraged us to be independent,” she added.

The injustice of war

El Hassan is sensitive to injustice, which is pushing her to work on issues of human rights. "When you grow up during war you can only be a victim of injustice. The Lebanon war broke out when I was 9. We lived on the 12th floor of a building in the Mousaitbeh neighborhood (in the Western part of Beirut). We had no electricity or water during the conflict, and I carried cans of water up the stairs. At night we slept in the stairwell. We cannot be insensitive to injustice when we grow up hearing bombs, and I think my generation is resilient because they lived the war,” she said.

She also strongly believes that everyone can make a difference. That’s one of the reasons she loves politics: she believes in her role. "Lebanese abroad complain of being far from the country, and those who remain here complain because they live there. They deserve to live in a country where they feel good, and those abroad deserve to return. That's one of the reasons we need to improve things,” she said. "I do not like a defeatist attitude or people who say things like ‘I do not listen to the news or read newspapers anymore’ or those who do not care about what's going on. After all, we are all responsible for this country.”

El Hassan is married to a doctor and has three daughters, who are 25, 23 and 14 years old. To fulfill her role as Minister of Interior, she just resigned from her post as president in charge of the development of Tripoli’s special economic zone, a position she has held since 2013. During her time working on the project, she put it on track by signing and series of contracts and raising funds.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour the 21rst of February)

The first arab women appointed as interior minister, Raya El Hassan, has already gotten to work defining the priorities for the beginning of her tenure. Early on, her favorable position on civil marriage provoked the anger of Dar al-Fatwa, but she prefers not to talk about the subject in the media. Instead, she is focusing on what’s in front of her, starting with some of the hardest tasks that...