Interview with Joumana Haddad: "The best is yet to come"

April 22, 2019

Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese journalist, writer, and civil rights and political activist based in Beirut. She's probably one the most - if not the most - libertarian political candidates to run for the 2018 Lebanon parliamentary elections for the district of Beirut I, a district noted for a particularly low turnout. Nevertheless, Haddad was still expected to win her seat in parliament until former Minister of Interior and Municipalities Nohad Machnouk announced her loss to the Christian nationalist Free Patriotic Movement candidate Antoine Pano. Evidence gathered by independent watchers led to the conclusion that results were potentially tricked following an IT incident, and Haddad's loss was yet another victim of corruption. The 2018 parliamentary elections were the first in nine years, with a parliament having been self-extended twice. Lebanon ranks 138/180 on Transparency International's corruption index and has been called by its international partners to take required action under conditional financial support. [Picture: Hussein Malla/AP]


Samir Chalhoub: In an interview with The Guardian in 2010, you mentioned that you "live in a country that hates you". Do you think this is still the case for 2019, especially after your political campaign? 


When I said that I was living in a country that hated me, I wasn't referring to myself as a specific individual, rather to every Lebanese woman who is disrespected by this State. Today, almost a decade later, I see very slow progress in this regard, despite some small gains here and there thanks to the feminist organizations’ hard work. But we are still far away from living in a country that respects our rights, roles, and capacities as women; a country that appreciates, supports and “loves” us the way we deserve.


Samir Chalhoub: Why is it a common perception for that the Lebanese doubt the credibility of the ruling class?


Joumana Haddad: These perceptions don't come from nowhere; they are not mere “impressions” or unjust generalizations. They are based on facts that the Lebanese people have witnessed, and experiences that they have gone through, during years of constant disillusionment. Corruption is not some myth or a cliché accusation: It is real and it is spread like cancer at all levels of our leadership. Not to mention that the absence of opposition in the consecutive governments, due to the horrendous tactic of “share splitting” between different parties, takes any credibility away.


Samir Chalhoub: What are the top priorities you would have been working on? 


Joumana Haddad: I would have prioritized lobbying for a “personal status civil law”, as it would grant civil and equal rights to the Lebanese, including women's rights, civil marriage, migrant workers, and LGBT rights. I would have also focused on the education sector, pushing for secular schooling and for improving the conditions of public schools: not only because quality education is every child's right and shouldn’t be a privilege to those who have money, but also because it would be a means to fight confessionalism. Most private schools are religious, and they often promote religious belonging at the expenses of a unified national identity. You grow up to be a Maronite or a Sunni or a Shia first, instead of being Lebanese first. This is intoxicating our self-perception since a very young age. As long as we don’t think and feel and act as Lebanese, we are never going to get out of this abyss. The parties in power are also working on maintaining this religious divide and on strengthening this confessional identity in order to stay in power. They are using it as a strategy, intensifying the feeling of fear from others by preaching about "the rights of Christians, the rights of the Sunnis, the Shias, etc.". Truth is, they couldn’t care less about the rights of the people. But they know that this is how they can guarantee to stay in their positions of authority. Fear is one of the most influential tools of mass brainwashing and control.


Samir Chalhoub: Let's consider you're a member of the elected 2018 parliament and you would need to advance these priorities, which alliance would you consider making? 


Joumana Haddad: I already have an ally in parliament, MP Paula Yacoubian, and we would have worked as a team on these and other issues- something that I am confident we will do at some point. But to answer your question, I am willing to work with any person to move my agenda forward. This is politics, not some kids game where you make “singof singof” with those you do not like. I did a simple exercise during my last campaign: I collected all the electoral programs I was able to obtain, considering that not all candidates had even elaborated a program - which shows how much they respect their electorates! - and conducted a comparative study to find out who supports each one of my causes, if any. Many promises have been made before the elections, and the different parties must be held accountable for what they had pledged to achieve. I have no pre-selection criteria for my alliances, it really depends on the causes I'm fighting for and who’s willing to support them.


Samir Chalhoub: You've won the hearts of women rights defenders, the LGBT community, and other rights groups in the 2018 legislative elections. We've seen them protesting on the streets with you, writing about you... How can you capitalize on this popularity? 

Joumana Haddad: By keeping on being who I am, doing what I'm doing, saying what I am saying, fighting the way I’m fighting, and most importantly believing in the efficiency and importance of this fight. I'm not losing hope and turning my back just because I got cheated. Unfortunately, this is a country where you get cheated. We already know that. A country where you get robbed, disrespected, harassed, oppressed and intimidated every single day if you do not belong to the “sacred clan of the leaders” and their entourage. I certainly have ideals, a lot of them, but I am no idealist. I am not a naïve Don Quixote. If you want to go into politics, you have to be realistic enough to expect all different sorts of disappointments and obstacles and backstabbing, and still keep on moving forward. Having said that, I do believe that my chances have increased now, because I'm counting on the support of all those people who came down the streets for me, and who perhaps weren't aware that I existed before May 7th. Yes, my seat got stolen, but I gained a great deal of attention, and I will keep capitalizing on this attention to promote the values of human dignity, integrity, equality, freedom, forthrightness, open-mindedness and such. This kind of Lebanon is possible, as long as we believe it is, and do our best to make it happen against all odds. I'm continuously meeting with the youth. Unfortunately, many of them feel like they do not want/need to involve themselves in politics. But I keep telling them it is not a choice. It is a duty. The most dangerous and deadly plague in our world is indifference. Get involved, care about something, choose one issue that makes you angry and give it an hour of your week: I'm sure Lebanon will be a better place if you do!


Samir Chalhoub: It appears as politics looking like a dark place to some Lebanese youth.


Joumana Haddad: It certainly is a dark place, but this is not a reason to turn away from it. Young people are the ones who have the most energy, passion, and ability to invest themselves in a cause. They master the art of diving into the unknown. If not them, who?


Samir Chalhoub: To you Joumana, what does it mean to be a woman, a feminist, an atheist, and a liberal in a parliament that is prominently patriarchal and confessional? 


Joumana Haddad: A lot of fun, as you can imagine! (she laughs). On a serious note, I know that I would be the “black sheep of the family”, but that’s fine, and it’s also irrelevant: I did not choose to go into the field of public service to stir controversy about who I am, but to serve the Lebanese people. Over years of getting caught in pointless clashes, I’ve trained myself to choose my battles carefully and not lose sight of the real issues that matter. This fight is not about me as a person, it is not about showing off or rousing sterile animosities with others who think differently. It is about making this country less divided, less corrupt, less sexist, less discriminating, less racist, less homophobic, less 'classist'. It is, in short, about making it a livable place for the human being. I’m a practical person, and I also don't need polemic to nourish my ego. I know that I simply want to represent every person who thinks the way I do or believes in the values that I believe in, and they are not few. Serving those people is and will always be my main concern. Obviously, I'm not someone who shies away from confrontation, and I am quick to say “bring it on” if someone wants to step on my toes and deprive me of my rights! So I'm sure that I'm going to have lots of confrontations in a parliament that is predominantly patriarchal, sexist, and most of all, a hypocrite. But this is not a goal in itself; it’s more of a collateral result.

Samir Chalhoub: Do you think the first and recently appointed woman Minister of Interior and Municipalities Raya El Hassan would step down from the civil marriage conversation due to the pressure received from high-level religious groups?  


Joumana Haddad: No, she wouldn’t. She’s not the kind of woman to cave in, in my opinion. I have a lot of respect for her, and I already knew and admired her before she became Minister of Interior. I was delighted that she was given such an important ministry, because usually women in public office are given 'light' roles. It was more than well deserved: She's brilliant, determined, resilient and straightforward. I believe in her.


Samir Chalhoub: How would you assess your counterpart in parliament MP Paula Yacoubian and her efforts until date?


Joumana Haddad: I think she's doing great, and that she’s being the voice of countless voiceless Lebanese. She’s surely the only one who represents me in parliament. The challenges that Paula is facing are enormous, and the resistance and attacks that are constantly targeting her are proof of the threat that she represents to many of the corrupt people in power. The majority of these do not want outspoken and honest people like her revealing their cowardice. Let's not forget she's leading this fight inside the system all by herself, but she's an intelligent woman, and she has a lot of wisdom and quite a strong will, and I am confident that by the end of these four years she will be able to prove that opposition has a real chance in Lebanon and that we all need to get on board of that train if we don’t want this country to crash and burn. 


Samir Chalhoub: So Joumana, we've been hearing about the Lebanese government being committed to reforms required from CEDRE and support from international partners. Do you think this comes from a political will or simply behind funding motives? 


Joumana Haddad: This smart “financial blackmail” was the only way to push the government to try and do something. Let us just hope it will work and actually get us somewhere better. We’ve been hearing promises about fighting corruption and fixing the system for decades now, but it was all “parole parole parole”. I'm thankful that the international community has finally opted for conditional funding. It's shameful the Lebanese still lack their basic needs, and that political leaders were making money and serving their own interests off our misery. The real puzzle is: How is it possible that these people are still in power, after all those years of scamming us and getting away with it? That is the question that every Lebanese needs to ask themselves at this gloomy point of our history.


Samir Chalhoub: If you had to sum up your experience doing politics as your upcoming book title, what would it be?


"The best is yet to come". Despite all the frustration and anger that I feel because of what is happening around me, I'm very passionate about this new chapter in my life and deeply committed to it. When I decided to get more involved in politics and run for elections, I didn't do it to just “try my luck”. It was a serious career choice that came after a lot of thought and weighing in the pros and cons and after twenty years of being a watchdog as a journalist and human rights activist. It may be true that the values I believe in and defend (like equality, secularism, freedom, tolerance, social responsibility, etc.) might seem difficult to apply in the gloomy present context, but I am confident that we will get there. The key is to place one foot in front of the other and keep walking. It will eventually build up, generation after generation. Sometimes people ask me if I feel desperate due to the amount of work it involves, but I'm a person who wakes up every morning with the will to move mountains for what I believe in. There's so much to do in this country and I'm not afraid of challenges. Lebanon is an ongoing project, and we can all participate, each in our own way, in making this land a better and more dignified state for all its citizens. I'm a child of the vicious Lebanese civil war, a war that consumed my childhood and adolescence and destroyed uncountable lives and dreams. There should never be war again and I will do anything in my power to prevent it. 


Bonus question: Do you consider running for the 2022 legislative elections? 

Joumana Haddad: Certainly, as long as the right circumstances are available. But getting involved in politics doesn’t just mean running for elections. I am working on various fronts, especially with the youth, and I have just founded an organization that will promote and defend the values that I and like-minded people want to see in our society and country.


Samir Chalhoub: Thank you very much Joumana, and wishing all the best. 


Joumana Haddad: My pleasure!







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