Lebanon’s first female interior minister discusses US support, border security

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In her first televised interview, Lebanon’s first female Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan who spoke to Al Arabiya in a wide-ranging interview including on issues of border security, the situation of Syrian refugees in the country and what her appointment means for the future of female Arab politicians.

Al-Hassan, who is the deputy head of the Lebanese Future Movement party, Hassan became the first woman interior minister in Lebanon and the Middle East in a cabinet line-up unveiled by Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri in late January following an eight-month delay.

During the last joint meeting of the Council of Arab Ministers of Interior and Justice, al-Hassan said she did not feel at odds.

“When I was the finance minister I was the only woman too, so it wasn’t new to me, although that had more masculinity to it,” al-Hassan said.

The Lebanese interior minister also spoke on the stability of Lebanese security following the support from several international countries and pre-emptive operations by internal security forces who uncovered several sleeper cells and terrorists who might have carried out attacks.

“The Americans are one of the most important supporters, especially in the field of training and arming of the internal and general security forces. There are also other donors such as the British and the EU and the French and we are lucky that there is serious work by donors to support the official security forces in Lebanon,” al-Hassan said.

Regarding Arab support to Lebanon, al-Hassan said that several Middle Eastern countries have focused their support on other areas.

“There is some support for the security services, but I think they prefer to put their aid elsewhere, in the social and economic sectors and this is what we saw at the CEDER and previous conferences,” she said.

“We really need some assistance in Training and other matters that the security body needs. But this is of course up to the Arab countries. They are the ones to decide what kind of aid is suitable for them,” she added.

Al-Hassan also spoke on the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which hosts more than 950,000 registered refugees, according to UNHCR. According to her, the Future Movement’s position falls under the policy of wanting Syrians to return to their country as long as their safety can be guaranteed.

“Our position as the Future Movement, I represent a political party as well, is that we want the Syrians to go back home as soon as possible, as long as their return is safe and fast. We do not want to force any Syrian to return without guaranteeing his or her safety,” al-Hassan said.

Below is the full transcript of Al Arabiya’s interview with Raya al-Hassan:

Welcome to this special interview with the Lebanese Interior Minister Raya Hassan.

Thank you Raya, this is your first television interview which you exclusively give to Al Arabiya and Al Hadath channels so thank you.

This is also the first time in history that the Ministry of Interior in Lebanon is headed by a woman and a technocrat. What are the projects that you have for the Ministry of the Interior?

First of all, I want to change the image of the Ministry of the Interior, I want the ministry to preserve the security and enforce the law, but within a vision close to the people. We want to serve the people, not suppress them. We do not just want to apply the law without being close to the citizens.

I am translating this approach through some measures that I’m taking. For example, in the security sector, we are implementing something called community police, we want the police to preserve the security and oppress those who break the law, but within a different approach implemented by the police on the ground.

As citizens, we feel that there is a distance with the security men, sometimes they are hostile in the street and we, as Lebanese citizens, prefer to call someone for a favor to help up and this breaks the status of the policeman in the street and ours as citizens as well.

You’re right, that’s what’s happening today. But when we change the portrayal of policemen from oppressors. To preservers of security, enforcers of the law. We might be able to change the way that people behave with the police. This isn’t something that can be done in a month or two. This is more of a transformational process that will happen over years.

So it’s a cultural change then?

Absolutely, I mean a cultural change in the gendarmerie. How to preserve security within the approach of human rights. The citizens have rights and we must treat them with respect, and tell them that we are protecting you, and we do not want to oppress you. We are working to help you, we want to improve traffic. There are several things that we’re trying to apply through practices that several projects are adopting, in public security or internal security forces, which mostly deals with citizens.

On the other hand, there is the subject of prisons.

Which is one of the biggest problems in the country in terms of overcrowding, and sometimes the ill-treatment of prisoners. I’m personally insisting on the issue of human rights and the adoption of this idea, especially when dealing with prisoners.

There are universal standards –

Yes, there are universal standards, but I don’t want to apply something that isn’t based on a realistic approach.

Because there is no space for prisons, right?

There is no space, and the people who serve in prison eventually consider themselves to be prisoners. The situation is very difficult and there is a problem of overcrowding.

The accumulation of years has led to this situation, but today we are working on several stages in short and long term. In some short-term procedures, for example, we count all the prisoners who have finished their sentence, but have some fines that they aren’t able to pay, because they don’t have the financial means, so we go to the private sector for some assistance and donations to pay the fines of those who finished their sentences. We just started to implement this, it is a small step, but it can help with overcrowding.

What about building new prisons? This is one of the most important problems in Lebanon.

Former Minister Nohad al-Machnouk went to the private sector and received donations. Today, we will lay the foundation stone for a prison in Majdalaiya in the north, worth about $5 million.

We’re also receiving aid from the European Union to set up a center for juveniles which is a step in the right direction because it separates the juveniles from the rest of the prisoners and puts them in a special building where we can nurture them and work on programs to reintegrate them into the society in the future when they finish their sentences.

We now have a clearer vision on dealing with the issue of alleviating the suffering of prisoners during the period in which they are sentenced.

Since we’re talking prisoners, let’s talk about another very sensitive subject in Lebanon, which has a political nature, not just a security and a judicial one. This topic is the Islamic prisoners, which is one of the most controversial files. There are famous names known by the Arab viewers, such as Ahmed al-Asir, singer Fadel Shaker, and others who participated in battles.

What are the developments on this file?

The Prime Minister is taking care of this file, and he is working tirelessly to push it forward. At least what we have been able to do in this new government is that in the ministerial statement there was a clear declaration that the Lebanese government will go ahead with granting amnesty. I find this step very good if it happens.

As you know there are some regulations, some political parties are not comfortable with the idea of amnesty, regardless of the kind of crime. So the people known as Islamist prisoners will be put in categories.

Of course, any prisoner who committed a clearly terrorist crime that included murder, especially of someone from security or military forces, this person cannot be granted amnesty.

However, there are other groups who empathize, and younger people who have been brainwashed, those people should be assessed differently. At the end of the day, this is not in my jurisdiction.

As the Interior Ministry, our jurisdiction is to ensure the security of prisons. As for other measures, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.

It’s also relevant in politics, because there is a feeling that justice is selective in Lebanon.

For example, most of the Islamist prisoners are Sunnis while there are others, like the accused of killing Rafiq al-Hariri, who are from the Shiite community and they weren’t prosecuted.

We know and reject that these people who haven’t been prosecuted to stay the way they are, we took this upon ourselves and the government’s president is working on this.

We are meeting with the families of the detainees and their representatives because there is great injustice, those charged in a clear terrorist crime will spend their time in prison. As for the rest, it’s up to the judiciary to decide whether to charge them or free them.

Some of the complaints against Lebanon concerns the airport of Beirut, as a Lebanese woman or an Arab or foreign tourist coming to Lebanon, we notice there are long queues at the airport.

Do you have a plan in the Ministry of Interior to improve Lebanon's airport to the global standards?

May God rest the soul of martyr Rafiq al-Hariri, whom people used to blame for making the airport so big. Today, we find that the airport’s size isn’t enough for the amount of travelers.

The current situation is hopefully a temporary one, we are working to decrease this congestion.

The current situation is due to expansion work in some areas of the airport, and this is to facilitate the process of public security and internal security and passport control, and inspection and so on.

Why can I enter Dubai via biometrics but I can’t do the same in Beirut airport?

We are trying to get there. I’m not trying to justify myself or previous ministers, but what is important is that we have a vision and this vision is being implemented.

Today, expansion work is causing this congestion. I was at the airport yesterday with the Minister of Transport and Public Works. We saw the work being done and we ensured that by early June, the works will finish. We will inaugurate the airport with its new look.

There is another point of view that says that Beirut’s airport isn’t lawful. In the past months and years there have been media reports on money and arm smuggling and maybe human trafficking.

Is Beirut’s airport under control?

I assure you that the airport is under control, and I always give these assurances especially to the ambassadors such as the Saudi ambassador who told me that there will be more Saudis coming after lifting the ban on Saudis visiting.

On my part I assured him that security is in place and that Lebanon is better than many other countries and this is visible on the grounds.

We do not see any security incidents and we see that security is stable and more and more tourists are coming and we expect that in the summer, we will be able to do all we can to make it easier for visitors and tourists to come to Lebanon and to have a comfortable and secure stay.

When you were appointed as the head of the Ministry of the Interior, you removed the security checkpoints and the ministry is in one of the most famous areas in Beirut.

Is the Lebanese Minister of Interior saying that Lebanon is now safe in a direct message to the tourists?

Especially that Lebanon has been suffering the lack of tourists?

The Saudi lifting of the ban on its citizens to come and other countries looking into doing the same. Those things to us is a testimony that the security is good and we are confirming that as a Lebanese government and a Ministry of Interior. Security is in place. I removed checkpoints that people expected trouble in and I put my credibility on the line and pledge that security is under control.

If all security issues were up to Your Excellency, the Lebanese citizen might have felt completely safe. But unfortunately, Lebanon is in a geographically dangerous location. It is known that the Americans support Lebanon and specifically the Lebanese security bodies. What is this support?

It is not only the Americans. The Americans are one of the most important supporters, especially in the field of training and arming of the internal and general security forces. There are also other donors such as the British and the EU and the French and we are lucky that there is serious work by donors to support the official security forces in Lebanon, and we see the results of that on the ground.

Like I said, in the past three to four years, the security is stable and we have seen the pre-emptive operations by the internal security forces, which lifted the cover off sleeper cells and terrorists who might have carried out operations. I tell the donors that their investment has given results on the ground, and their assessment of the security bodies has become higher.

Is there Arab support for the security services in Lebanon? What does the Interior Minister ask from them?

I can say with all honesty that Arabs were the first to support Lebanon in all economic conferences, in all stages of Lebanon's history and the crises in which we lived. There is some support for the security services, but I think they prefer to put their aid elsewhere, in the social and economic sectors and this is what we saw at the CEDER and previous conferences.

We really need some assistance in Training and other matters that the security body needs. But this is of course up to the Arab countries. They are the ones to decide what kind of aid is suitable for them.

From a security point of view, ISIS has ruined Syria and put it in a state of permanent war. Is there any fear of ISIS members going from Syria to Lebanon, or sleeper cells maybe?

We have reinforced the border crossings with military forces and public security to ensure that there is no smuggling of any Syrians or terrorists entering Lebanon illegally.

And of course, ISIS has non-Syrian fighters from all nationalities. Of course, we have greatly reinforced the crossings, even the illegal ones by increasing the presence of the army.

There is more force to control the security on the border with Lebanon. Internal security is tightening its procedures inside the country through the security bodies it has access to in order to control any possible operation or plan.

Today I can say that there are no more sleeper cells. All terrorist movements that we saw have been eliminated. But we always have to be careful, we can’t be completely sure.

We live in a difficult area and we have to make sure that the security bodies are always on alert.

Today I see that we are controlling the situation by 90% and we should remain cautious for the remaining 10% just like any neighboring country.

Yes, even Europe suffered from this kind of attacks. Concerning the issue of the displaced; the Lebanese are tired of their presence, but there is another group that says that they should return when the time is right. What does Raya al-Hassan say about this?

Our position as the Future Movement, I represent a political party as well, is that we want the Syrians to go back home as soon as possible, as long as their return is safe and fast. We do not want to force any Syrian to return without guaranteeing his/her safety.

The file must be assessed and approached from the Lebanese point of view since its repercussions are negative the Lebanese economy, but from a human dimension, we must work together and press the international community to find a quick political solution to this issue and ensure the return of the displaced as part of the solution.

Before that happens, we will not pressure any Syrian, quite the opposite, we host them and give them a decent life. But also, any unorganized Syrian labor will be controlled. Because what’s happening is an unfair competition between the Lebanese and Syrian worker, which is something we won’t tolerate.

But at the same time, we give them a decent life and we work with the international community to speed up the solution.

You represent the Future Movement which lost one of the most important Sunni political figures in Lebanon. Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in downtown Beirut in broad daylight. Fourteen years after his assassination, there is the impression that Hezbollah is running and controlling Lebanon.

How does the Sunni street feel about this especially that you are the daughter of this Sunni street?

There is some kind of frustration, but in my opinion, today there is more frustration with the economic and social situation than with a certain political position.

We know, Reema, that we are facing the biggest economic problem in Lebanon. We cannot stand against a certain regional-backed party. That’s why the prime minister, in a courageous position, said that he will put the strategic differences with this party aside, and focus on the interest of the Lebanese citizen. And he has repeated this several times and I believe that the Sunni street is convinced with this.

To be able to resolve this dilemma we need to form a united government or we can’t take any decision in Lebanon. From this point of view, I believe the Sunni street has become understanding, and supporting of the prime minister in his approach.

One of the things you talked about is the subject of Lebanese women giving their nationality to their children, is there any progress regarding this issue?

There is a proposal for a law by the Future Movement, there is a historical objection from some political parties in Lebanon, but I feel that we are going somewhere with this and the prime minister said that he supports it and wants it to move forward.

I must be honest that we won’t be able to not put constraints on it…

So there will be exceptions for Palestinians and Syrians?

Yes, I believe there will be some regulations.

You are a defender of women's rights. When a Lebanese man marries a Palestinian woman or a Syrian woman, he can give her his nationality after one year, and this is a not fair for women?

You’re right. If it was up to me, I would have given citizenship to all the children of a Lebanese woman married to a foreigner. But this is my personal opinion. Realistically today, and according to the composition of Lebanon, I think it will not pass without regulations, this is what I think.

So let’s at least get a part of it done. I’m very pragmatic when it comes to this. We will push for the full thing, but if it didn’t work, let’s at least get some of the Lebanese woman’s rights.

What caught my attention when you were named Minister of Interior is when senior military men in Lebanon were saluting you. Is the fact that you are a woman at the head of the Interior Ministry an obstacle? Do they obey your orders?

Yes of course they do. I do not like the word “obey.” At first, I was afraid of this issue when the prime minister suggested it to me, but when I came to the ministry and met everyone, I didn’t feel any difference at all. I believe there is great discipline and there is respect for the hierarchy, and I believe they treat me like they would have treated any man.

At the end of the day, you’re the one who proves you’re worthy of the title. Whether man or woman, they prove themselves and it becomes natural.

You were the only woman at the meeting of Arab interior ministers. How was this experiment?

It was a lovely experience but it was not the first time. When I was the finance minister I was the only woman too, so it wasn’t new to me, although that had more masculinity to it.

But all the people I met with were friendly, there is mutual respect and I felt comfortable.

I think because I’m a woman, I was treated more smoothly and I hope there will be more than one woman in these meetings.

Raya al-Hassan is Sunni and every Sunni in Lebanon has the opportunity to become prime minister and you are from the largest Sunni party in Lebanon. Can we ever see you as the first female Lebanese prime minister?

Honestly, it’s not what I aspire for. I work from all my heart to execute my responsibilities. But do I aspire for more? Thank God for the big opportunities I was given to be in those roles. I don’t want more than this. I just want to see my family and my children and enjoy my remaining years.

If Prime Minister al-Hariri were to ask you, as he did when he asked you to be head of the Interior Ministry?

Saad al-Hariri, for me, is the head of the Future Movement and I’m his deputy. Whatever he asks of me, I do not hesitate to implement it, but thank God we have Prime Minister al-Hariri now, and we are comfortable with him, and hopefully he will be the first leader of reforms in Lebanon.

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