I watched an enlightening lecture by Dr. Yuree Noh, a brilliant researcher at Harvard University, discussing gender quota systems in the Middle East. It’s pretty clear that women empowerment is now a big thing in the developed world. Pretty much any conference I go to will include something on that, like two events I attended last week, at Columbia Business School in New York and at Wharton in Philadelphia — each had a women’s panel.
The surprising part, though, is that according to Dr. Noh, Middle Eastern dictatorships, as well as nations with various shades of democracy, or democracy with “Arab characteristics,” have also jumped on the bandwagon. Dr. Noh had some plausible and interesting hypotheses explaining this new phenomenon, but I’ll leave that for the highly anticipated research paper that she’ll publish on this topic.
She started the presentation with a list of countries in the Middle East ranked by the representation of women in parliament. I wasn’t surprised when I saw Lebanon was 4th out of 21 countries. Naturally, I scanned the list to see who beat us. They were Yemen, Kuwait, and Oman, which made me doubt her data, until I realized that we were actually 4th from the bottom, which is especially egregious, because women are now the majority of enrollments at our top universities.
Last year, I published an OpEd in which we were still debating whether it’s acceptable to have a man as a minister of women’s affairs. A few months later, in the new parliament, a significant improvement is attained, which I wrote about here, with the highly energetic and feisty, Nada Bustani, minister of energy, and the courageous Slayer of Status Quo, Raya El Hassan. My sources also tell me that Prime Minister Hariri insisted on a female candidate for elections in Tripoli, one of the more conservative cities in the country.
So what changed in a few short months?
Part of the reason a politician would do this is to compensate for the drop in his approval rating among traditional sources of support, based on objective performance metrics (such as high unemployment, absence of economic growth, lack of providing basic services like water and electricity, etc). So why not harness the other 50% of his constituency which has been ignored thus far?
Smart move, but it ain’t the only reason.
The twitter account of US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, contains a summary video tweet of each trip he makes, plus tweets of pictures with specific people he wants to highlight. In Lebanon, he obviously met the constitutional troika which runs the country — President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Harriri, and Speaker Nabih Berri. Per protocol, he also met with his counterpart, foreign minister Gibran Bassil. So far, except for the fact that we have 3 leaders that somewhat represent the country’s leadership, i.e. triple the average of a less important country, this is normal and inline with other nations. In Israel, the main video shows he met their president, a figurehead with no executive power, and their prime minister; a much longer video, I might add, reflecting the proportional love (or lack thereof).
In Kuwait, the video shows he met the Emir and foreign minister. In all the visits, his meetings were mostly for social or symbolic reasons, like with the staff at embassies or some religious figures. In Lebanon, he also met members of the (traditional) opposition, like Samir Geagea, May Chidiac, and Walid Jumblatt, but none were in the official highlight reel. That video was 22 seconds, split as follows. The first 4 seconds was him coming down the stairs of his government airplane and meeting the American diplomats stationed in Beirut. His next four seconds were with Interior Minister Raya el Hassan. The next nine seconds were him giving a speech. The next one second was shaking hands with Minister Bassil. The next two seconds were shaking hands with President Aoun, the most senior Lebanese government official. Then Bassil gets another one second. And that’s it.
In other words, the scenes with Lebanese officials total nine seconds, with the Interior Minister getting 44%, his counterpart getting 22%, and the President of the Republic getting 22% of the footage. In fact, the first formal meeting with any official in the country was with Minister Raya El Hassan.
In diplomatic protocol, he had no reason to meet the interior minister, and his tight schedule for a very short visit would be heavily vetted by his staff and himself. He didn’t meet with the interior ministers of Kuwait or Israel. As far as I know, no other US Secretary of State has ever had a one-on-one pre-arranged meeting with a Lebanese Interior Minister.
So why the change this time and why give the interior minister double the time of anyone else in official footage?
There’s been a lot of analysis about Pompeo’s visit, including warnings about Iran, Hezbollah, and sanctions, but what most people have missed is the softer, perhaps more important, part of American and European diplomacy, encouraging countries such as ours to give women their full civil rights and participation in the political process. Pompeo deliberately met with the first female interior minister ever appointed in the Arab World. It looks like Prime Minister Harriri has picked up on that subtle message and exhibited a high level of international political savvy in his political selections. His competitors from other parties will pick up on it soon also, but, more importantly, and hopefully, Lebanese women realize that their time has now come.
The coming decade is yours — go for it, ladies!
Dan Azzi is a regular contributor to Annahar. He has recently been invited to be an Advanced Leadership Initiative Fellow at Harvard University, a program for senior executives to leverage their experience and apply it to a problem with social impact. Dan’s research focus at Harvard will be economic and political reform in a hypothetical small country riddled with corruption and negligence. Previously, he was the Chairman and CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Lebanon.
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