Lebanon unveiled a new government on January 22, 85 days after the resignation of prime minister Saad al-Hariri. Headed by Hassan Diab, it includes six female ministers, among them the defense minister, who has also been appointed deputy prime minister.
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This is a first not only for Lebanon, but for the entire Arab world.
A month and three days after President Michel Aoun tapped Diab to form a government, the 20-member cabinet of technocrats held its first session Wednesday morning amid the worst political and economic crisis the country has seen in decades. Diab and his ministers are expected to face numerous difficulties, chief among them ongoing demonstrations against corruption and the political elite that erupted in October.
Citizens are already expressing skepticism, and lawmaker Imad al-Hout told The Media Line that the objections concerned the way the government was formed and the insistence of the parties in power to continue a sectarian quota system for the cabinet.
“The formation of the government was delayed as a result of disagreements over how power should be shared – as if the country was at its best and there were no citizens in the streets protesting against mismanagement, widespread corruption and the quota system,” Hout said.
As for the number of women, he stated: “Unfortunately, our society still lives in a state of discrimination, so the inclusion of this many women is regarded as an achievement when it shouldn’t be. Perhaps the reason for this many women is to win over public opinion through the suggestion of fairness.”
Lebanon tested the idea of appointing a woman to a security-related ministerial post in Hariri’s government, where Raya al-Hassan held the position of interior and municipalities minister. Hout noted that public opinion would judge the cabinet ministers based not on their gender, but on their decisions.
“It is clear that the choice of ministers, including the defense minister, was not based primarily on efficiency but on loyalty,” he said.
Zeina Akar, the new defense minister and deputy prime minister, holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management from the Lebanese American University, and has more than 20 years of practical, administrative and research experience – but no experience in security matters. She founded and managed the non-governmental Social and Cultural Development Association (INMA), establishing close contacts with international donors, other NGOs, UN agencies and financial institutions.
Abdel-Bari Atwan, a Syrian analyst and editor-in-chief of Rai al-Youm, an Arabic language news and opinion website, told The Media Line that Lebanon’s political elite realized the necessity of responding to the street.
“Hassan Diab’s government, with six women ministers, affirms that the revolution has paid off,” he said. “Women have played a major role in this [protest] movement, and in its leadership as well. Therefore, the appointment of the female ministers is the first response to this movement and its demands for change.”
Others, however, feel that female representation in the new government is intended to attract global support.
Rabee Damaj, a Lebanese activist and freelance journalist who previously worked for al-Hurra in Dubai, complained to The Media Line that the new government does not represent society.
“This is Gebran Bassil’s government,” he said, referring to Aoun’s son-in-law and a powerful politician in his own right who most recently served as caretaker foreign minister. “He chose all the names [of ministers], as well as the Hizbullah and Amal movements. No specialists [and] no [members of] civil society [will have input].”
Nada Nassef, a Lebanese political activist who has been demonstrating in the streets since October, told The Media Line that from day one, the protesters’ demands for a new government had been clear and direct: a technocratic government of specialists.
“The newly formed government is very disappointing, a quota government. Yes, it has specialists, but in the wrong places,” she said.
“The interior minister was at some point very loyal to the Syrian regime, where he threatened the security of Lebanon for years,” Nassef noted. “Well, we reject this new government, which doesn’t come close to the expectations of the revolution or the people in the street.”
The protests continued on Wednesday night, though she admits that people are tired and the economic situation is difficult.
“Any calm,” she warned, “won’t remain for long.”
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