BEIRUT: Annahar recently interviewed the Director of International Affairs to Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Karma Ekmekji, for an insight into her life in Diplomacy.
Ekmekji is a graduate of the American University in Beirut. In 2012, she was named as one of the 99 Diplomatic Courier's foreign policy leaders.
You studied environmental health at AUB, what made you shift towards international and public affairs at Columbia?
There is a saying “If you want to make God laugh tell her your plans.” It’s very rare that we actually do what we plan and anticipate in our life, since we often drift into another path. I have always had a passion for environmental health, but I didn’t want to study the technical issue, rather the policy aspect of it, so, I decided to study environmental health and attain a minor in public administration.
While I was in AUB, I was very active in the Student Representative Council, SRC and I was secretary of the University Faculty Student Committee (USFC). During my last year there, I applied for the Fulbright scholarship and got accepted at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) to pursue a Masters’ Degree in Public Administration.
While I was at Columbia, there was an opening for a fellowship at the U.N. for Fulbrighters from the MENA region and it was called “the Rick Hooper Fellowship” and that was my foot in the door.
Throughout your field of work, you’ve met many influential people, who intrigued you the most and why?
Emmanuel Macron. He’s young, so we can identify with him. When I met him the first time he was still a candidate and we had dinner. He was extremely down to earth and he had so much ambition and so much ahead of him. He is also confident and dutiful of women’s rights and in wanting to enlarge France’s influence in the world. In my recent years, he really left a mark on me. And the ultimate Diplowoman, of course, remains Angela Merkel.
You’ve worked as a political officer for the Special Coordinator of the U.N. Secretary-General in Lebanon with specialization in elections, what could be the reason for the low voter turnout in the last Lebanese elections?
I personally believe that there are two reasons for that. First, people feel no matter what happened, things won’t change which led them to be indifferent. The second reason is more technical, that people on most electoral lists aren’t even in Lebanon and this isn’t clear when counting the voter turnout.
I have family in the U.S. that are on the electoral lists and are being counted in the voter turnout percentage. There has been word that the new law is complicated but I personally don’t think it so. The law was made for the people and if someone opened the voting ballot it’s really as simple. In Afghanistan, in 2007 the ballot paper was huge and it was more complicated than that. Whether it’s a good or bad that’s another subject, but it isn’t complicated.
You’ve once said that “Lebanon cannot successfully assume its role as a strategic Middle Eastern country unless young people would influence its foreign policy and in turn international policy,” what are the steps to intrigue more young people towards international affairs?
The first obstacle facing the youth and specifically women to enter politics is the household perception of politics. If someone is 18 and tells their parents that they want to do international affairs, they usually ask “what are you going to do when you graduate? Are you going to become an ambassador?” To Lebanese parents, politics is dirty and corrupt in Lebanon.
The second impediment is the definition of politics and diplomacy. Diplomacy doesn’t only equal ambassador. It’s a broad definition. If a woman isn’t a member of Parliament or Minister, people automatically classify her as not being in politics, but you see a lot of men on TV who aren’t Ministers or Members of parliament but considered in politics.
I consider myself in diplomacy, although I’m not an ambassador. For example, a dear friend of mine, Maha Yehya the director of Carnegie center in the Middle East, for me is a Diplowoman since she’s a woman working in international affairs. So, I want to change the perception of the youth on these terms, which is a regional perception.
So you’ve launched the hashtag #diplowomen for women in diplomacy, could you tell us more about that?
I used to be a social media virgin. In 2016, I was nominated for the International Leaders Program (ILP) for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK government. On the first day, we were introducing ourselves to each other and they asked me what my Instagram and Facebook handle was and they were surprised when I told them I had neither.
They told me that if I was absent on social media then I was absent from the world. They also said that I am an Arab woman in the Middle East who works in politics and foreign affairs and it was a shame that my voice wasn’t heard to empower and inspire. I came back to Lebanon, told my husband, and I thought about it.
I’ve always wanted to create a network of Arab women in foreign affairs and diplomacy since it has been 70 years with men who are running our foreign policy and we reached nothing. Half of the countries don’t even speak to each other. Research has also shown that when women take part in mediation peace talks and conflict resolution, chances of success are higher and the peace after the talk lasts longer.
In the Arab world, we don’t have a group of women who come to talk to discuss and share experience and knowledge. So I created “Diplowomen” for that specific reason. I created a platform and network for women from the region to connect. And when I say from the region, I also include Iranians, Turks and Kurds and not only Arabs. Because they’re in our region and we have to deal with a lot of issues in common.
Do you think it’s difficult to advise PM Saad Hariri on international affairs taking into consideration that the President and the Prime minister disagree on some of the local and international issues? How can you cater to mitigate problems while staying on good terms with a region filled with proxy wars?
The President and the Prime Minister have no fundamental differences on foreign policy. They both believe in the disassociation policy and the proof is that it was unanimously adopted in December of last year in the Council of Ministers. Prime Minister Hariri’s ultimate priority is to protect Lebanon.
Lebanon is a consensual democracy, whatever happens, we must reach a middle ground or the country will collapse. This consensual spirit of politics also applies to diplomacy. We are in a burning region, yet Lebanon’s airport is still open, we can send our kids to school we live in a stable country, in light of the regional situation.
We all have problems, but the only way to protect Lebanon is to meet each other halfway. It is very tricky to advise the PM, but at the end of the day when I go abroad, I represent the entire country, different regional players cannot expect any more for us to fight their fight. Lebanon always comes first.
What advice would you give to thriving young diplomats?
Build networks and relationship. Diplomacy is a field of people, its strength is people. Also, don’t be emotional; you cannot be emotional when you’re in diplomacy. Be passionate, but not emotional.
Welcome to “Naya,” the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment. We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. Naya is devoted to women of all generations-Naya Editor, Sally Farhat:
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