Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

Why Lebanon's protesters turned against Raya El Hassan

The first woman to be interior minister was once celebrated as a reformer but her failure to rein in police brutality has turned her into a figure of hate

When Raya El Hassan became Lebanon’s interior minister late in January 2019, she made history. Not only was she the first woman in Lebanon to be appointed to that role, she was also the first in the Arab region.

She carried with her the reputation of an incorruptible, no-nonsense politician. Despite her strong ties to Saad Hariri, who is now caretaker prime minister, rival parties had few bad words about her.

The former finance minister immediately took several popular measures, such as removing blast walls and concrete blocks around official buildings to ease traffic in the congested Lebanese capital. She called for civil marriage in a country where religious groups have sway over family affairs. The media, including The National, hailed her as a role model for Arab women.

When unprecedented nationwide protests started on October 17, the Lebanese hurled insults at most of their leaders. But not at Mrs El Hassan.

Sometimes, bad things happen

Raya El Hassan

She said that she was against violence being used on peaceful protesters. Her children, like those of many other top Lebanese officials, took to the streets, hoping for change.

But then things started to change for the now caretaker minister.

In an interview with CNN in October, she was asked why security forces under her direction had not done more to stop attacks on protesters and their encampment by Hezbollah supporters.

Her reply was that sometimes, “bad things happen.”

While the comment raised eyebrows on the streets, it was still relatively unnoticed and she still received none of the vitriol that other figures – such as caretaker foreign minister Gibran Bassil – were subjected to.

But three months into the protests, demonstrators have now firmly turned against Mrs El Hassan.

Over the past week, a new vulgar chant about her has become popular, often heard ringing through the streets.

The reason for this swift shift in perception is her staunch support of the riot police despite its increasingly violent crackdown against demonstrations at the weekend as frustration with the political elite mounts.

Raya Al Hassan, the first female interior minister in Lebanon and the Arab world, has a reputation for being efficient and incorruptible. EPA  
Raya Al Hassan, the first female interior minister in Lebanon and the Arab world, has a reputation for being efficient and incorruptible. EPA

No new government has been formed since Mr Hariri stepped down on October 29 and the economic crisis is deepening.

Some briefly suggested Ms El Hassan’s name as a successor to Mr Hariri as one that would be popular on the street, respected by other parties and have the experience to carry out the difficult job.

As protesters have become more aggressive towards security forces, pelting them with rocks and other debris causing skull fractures among riot police, the officers have responded more violently.

But many on the streets have remained peaceful.

Protesters say they were unfairly attacked by security forces when violence increased on Saturday and Sunday.

TOPSHOT - Lebanese protesters take cover as riot police spray them with water from behind a barricaded road leading to parliament in central Beirut on January 19, 2020 amid ongoing anti-government demonstrations. Lebanese anti-riot police fired rubber bullets and water cannons at stone-throwing demonstrators in the Lebanese capital today, as hundreds were wounded in a weekend of rare violence. / AFP / PATRICK BAZ
TOPSHOT - Lebanese protesters take cover as riot police spray them with water from behind a barricaded road leading to parliament in central Beirut on January 19, 2020 amid ongoing anti-government demonstrations. Lebanese anti-riot police fired rubber bullets and water cannons at stone-throwing demonstrators in the Lebanese capital today, as hundreds were wounded in a weekend of rare violence. / AFP / PATRICK BAZ

For the first time, there was widespread use by riot police of rubber bullets at close range, reportedly often fired at above the waist in breach of international norms.

They pierced stomachs and faces. A protester, Jean-Georges Prince, needed an operation that lasted four and a half hours and 56 stitches on his lips. The 32-year-old advertising professional said that he was peacefully demonstrating.

Doctor Eid Azar, who treated an injured protester at Beirut’s Greek Orthodox hospital, told The National that the wounds indicated the riot police were either badly trained or intentionally trying to cause maximum pain.

As one protester put it: “Raya El Hassan will be forever be remembered as a woman who got the position she deserved and the first woman who tore down the country.”

Feyrouz Abou Hassan, another demonstrator, said that “everyone hates her. She is the one who orders attacks or not.”

It’s Lebanon’s worst job right now

Asma Andraos

Asma Andraos, a Lebanese event planner and Mr Hariri's former PR head, defended her long-time friend and former colleague. She pointed out that it is normal for the interior ministers to bear the brunt of public anger during times of unrest. “It’s Lebanon’s worst job right now,” she said.

“From the moment people throw rocks at the police, it must respond. Unfortunately, Lebanon’s security forces still use violent practices passed down from militias during the civil war.”

While these practices predate Mrs El Hassan’s mandate, Ms Andraos admitted they have undermined her credibility. “It’s very unfortunate. We were so happy to have the Arab world’s first woman interior minister.”

Mrs El Hassan's best option now may be to walk away.

“If I were here, I would resign. But knowing her sense of loyalty to Mr Hariri, I know she will not,” said Ms Andraos.

Updated: January 21, 2020 08:08 PM

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