BEIRUT — With a strong personality, a hardworking attitude, and a TV-ready face, Paula Yacoubian has managed to parlay media fame into a political career.
The 46-year-old Lebanese-Armenian, who was the only independent candidate to win a seat in the 2018 elections and is now running in Beirut I with the Tahalof Watani opposition list, came to the spotlight before pursuing politics. Since 1995, Yacoubian has worked at a number of Lebanese and pan-Arab international television stations. She became one of Lebanon’s most prominent media personalities, particularly during her stint at Future Movement’s Future TV, from which she resigned in January 2018 to run for Parliament.
While there are a plethora of opposition candidates running in this year’s election, Yacoubian occupies a unique position, since she can be judged on her parliamentary record, while most of the others have not held office before.
During her days in Parliament, according to her website, Yacoubian proposed or co-sponsored 63 laws.
According to a legal source, Yacoubian co-sponsored six laws which were eventually approved by Parliament. They included a proposal to legalize and regulate cannabis production, amendments to the domestic violence law and a bill to reform the National Committee for Human Rights.
Yacoubian said in an interview that she could have done more had she not been on her own.
“I was the only independent MP,” she said. “That’s why what needs to happen in the next election is we should try to gain a bloc of our own as independents and we should be a disruptive movement in Parliament that transforms its work from the sectarian game that they play to actually legislating effective laws.”
Some have questioned whether Yacoubian is truly independent.
Particularly after the Oct. 17, 2019, nationwide protests, Yacoubian took up the slogan “all of them means all of them,” assigning responsibility to all of the political establishment for the unprecedented economic crisis that Lebanon found itself facing.
But many of her critics maintain that she cannot be considered independent after working for party-affiliated media for so many years and accuse her of going easy on Future Movement-affiliated politicians. Hadi Kobeissi, a pro-Hezbollah political commentator, wrote on Twitter in September 2021 “ Paula Yacoubian is using her position in the civil society to defend [former Prime Minister] Fouad Siniora and the policies of the Future Movement.”
“I was never a member [of the party], I was a journalist at Future TV and I always debated Future Movement members,” Yacoubian told L’Orient Today.
“Sometimes they used to complain about me to [Future Movement head] Saad Hariri, and my response would always be, ‘Are we another al-Manar?’” she added, in reference to the Hezbollah-linked TV channel, which many consider to be exclusively a propaganda machine.
In 2018, Yacoubian quit Future TV and cast her name in the hat for the parliamentary elections as a candidate with the newly formed Sabaa Party. Yacoubian said that she decided to run with an opposition party because she does not believe in the current political establishment.
In 2018, Yaacoubian told Sputnik News Arabic that while “I have a good relationship with Saad Hariri … there’s a problem in the country and its system, and the civil society should be given a bigger chance to be able to move this stagnant water.”
She pointed to “how poor the services are in Lebanon — we have no electricity and we live on polluting generators, we pay two bills, as well as the disastrous waste file.”
However, she soon had a parting of ways with Sabaa as well. The party in 2019 revoked her membership.
“We noticed a different position from our MP when it comes to our essential positions, and she has shown through different stances a kind of neutrality toward a number of traditional [political] leaders,” Sabaa party said in a statement in March 2019 after deciding to remove Yacoubian from the party.
The statement added, “In the past nine months, she attended [only] two meetings of the executive body of the party, although we demanded [that she attend] from her in different ways, and the answer was always, ‘I don’t have time.’”
Yacoubian declined to comment on a question regarding the reasons for the split.
Some also criticized Yacoubian for her role in another controversy during her Future TV days. In 2017, when former Prime Minister Saad Hariri was allegedly detained in Saudi Arabia and forced to announce his resignation from Riyadh — which he later retracted after coming back to Beirut — Yacoubian traveled to Riyadh and conducted a TV interview with him. Journalist Ghadi Fancis accused Yacoubian in November 2019 of working with the interest of the Saudis against Hariri during the interview.
“Paula Yaacoubian went in a rush to the Ritz hotel in Saudi Arabia where Saad Hariri was arrested, as she interviewed him for the interest of Sabhans,” Francis said in reference to the Saudi authorities.
In October 2018, Yacoubian said, “I communicated what I knew at the time … It was obvious that in [Hariri’s] resignation statement that he was saying things that are different from what he said during his interview with me, so he said things that he did not want to say [in his resignation speech].”
As one of six female MPs in the 2018 Parliament, Yacoubian has sometimes been the target of criticisms that appear to be linked more to her gender than to her political record.
One such incident came during an interview with Al-Jadeed in October 2019, where Yacoubian had a heated exchange with the Free Patriotic Movement’s minister of the displaced at the time Ghassan Atallah, after the latter accused her of reaching her position “in unethical ways.”
Interpreting the comment as an attack on her virtue, Yacoubian responded, “Shame on you … my history is honorable, as opposed to your party which keeps stealing from the country, and every time someone mentions that, you try to shame them with their history, especially if they are women.”
To make her point even more directly, she told him, “Honor is not between the legs, it is in the head — something that you don’t have.”
Joumana Haddad, who ran on the same list as Yacoubian in the 2018 elections but decided not to run this time around, told L’Orient Today that Yacoubian is “a badass woman and politician who worked very hard and who got attacked repeatedly and in a sleazy way because she was saying things the way they are.”
“I’m proud to be her friend and she represents me, I believe in her,” she added.
Following the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands, Yacoubian, along with eight other MPs, resigned from Parliament in protest of its inaction in the face of such a tragedy.
“One of the things I am most proud of is resigning, because in Lebanon no one gives away their position. After Parliament refused to do any steps regarding [justice after] the explosion, the resignation was the least I could do,” Yacoubian said in an interview with L’Orient Today, adding that “on the contrary, the head of the Parliament [Speaker Nabih Berri] is now trying to remove [the head of the port blast investigation] Judge Tarek Bitar from his position.”
In addition to her work in politics, Yacoubian is also head of the NGO Dafa, which collects in-kind donations of food, clothing and other items and distributes them to people in need. The organization was active in the wake of the Beirut port explosion.
Khaled Said, who lives in the heavily blast-damaged neighborhood of Karantina, told L’Orient Today that though he doesn’t know Yacoubian personally, he was grateful for the assistance she gave to his area after the Beirut explosion.
“She took the initiative, and she did as much as she could after the explosion, and although I did not personally benefit from that I really appreciate what Paula did,” he said.
He added, “She made this initiative when the Lebanese government was absent. I will definitely vote for Paula, I and my other six family members.”
Given that political parties and candidates frequently hand out services before the elections to win votes, the involvement of a politician in an NGO often draws accusations of clientelism.
Asked whether she uses Dafa as a clientelist tool to gain popularity in the elections, Yacoubian said, “Dafa is nine years old, and when the organization started I used to say that I would never participate in an election. Besides, we help people from outside [my district in] Ashrafieh more than its own residents, because those are the people who are most in need.”
She added that her organization had suspended its work more than a month before the elections to avoid being seen as using the organization for electoral purposes.
“I never thought about my own time,” she said. “I dedicated myself to public service… and continued to call for democratic journalism and have served the people and fulfilled the promises that I have made by working for them.”
Her first term in Parliament has helped her better understand how to work in Lebanon’s political system, she said.
“We saw the revolution [of the October 2019 protest movement] and we know that revolutions in Lebanon are hard … If we remove the political class reform would become easy,” she said, but since they are still present “baby steps are the only choice we have.”
Yacoubian said that one of the lessons she learned as an MP that was not clear to her when she first started her parliamentary work, was the extent of collaboration between parties, including from seemingly rival blocs.
“I was not aware, for example, of the close relationship between the Lebanese Forces and Amal Movement,” Yacoubian said, asserting that the parties coordinate closely through the Administration and Justice Committee headed by LF MP Georges Adwan.
In the face of the de facto unity among traditional parties, Yacoubian said that “it is a shame” that the independent lists are scattered in the current elections. In addition to Tahalof Watani, opposition groups Citizens in a State (MMFD) and Madinati are also running their own lists in Beirut I.
Marwan Imad, an electoral candidate with MMFD in Aley, told L’Orient Today that in his view, Yacoubian had failed “in critical moments.”
“For example, in 2018 when Banque du Liban stopped giving housing loans, Yacoubian was in favor of the return of these loans and hence was in complete denial that the country was ahead of an economic crisis,” he said.
Imad also said that in her role as an MP Yacoubian would pick and choose which establishment politicians she would confront, based on her personal relationship with them: “For example she would oppose [FPM leader] Gebran Bassil, but she would not oppose [FPM MP] Ibrahim Kanaan, who has been defending the banks.”
He also cast blame on Yacoubian for the scattered state of the opposition lists in Beirut I.
“She was acting as the leader of the district, she would try to dictate who would be on the list and who would not,” he said. “… In a critical period, she decided to aim for one or two MPs in Parliament instead of being part of a structured movement.”
Yacoubian, for her part, said that the different opposition groups “were in constant negotiations. The person who has the most interest in the alliance of the opposition is me, but if they have already decided to form independent lists what can we do?”
She added, “We tried to explain to them that scattering the opposition vote would serve the establishment, and they know that by forming a different list they would take votes from the opposition, not from the traditional parties.”
Though the other independent lists are her rivals in the upcoming polls, Yacoubian said any choice is better than the current political class.
“I can’t say anything but to ask the people to vote for anti-establishment lists, whoever they are.” she said. “If they don’t want us, let them vote for the other independent lists.”
BEIRUT — With a strong personality, a hardworking attitude, and a TV-ready face, Paula Yacoubian has managed to parlay media fame into a political career.The 46-year-old Lebanese-Armenian, who was the only independent candidate to win a seat in the 2018 elections and is now running in Beirut I with the Tahalof Watani opposition list, came to the spotlight before pursuing politics. Since 1995,...