Lebanon’s new defense minister is first woman in Arab world to hold post

Zeina Akar one of six women named to new cabinet of Hezbollah-backed Hassan Diab amid months-long protests, with country’s economy in collapse

Lebanese Defense Minister Zeina Akar arrives for the inaugural cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut, on January 22, 2020. (AFP)
Lebanese Defense Minister Zeina Akar arrives for the inaugural cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut, on January 22, 2020. (AFP)

Zeina Akar was named Tuesday as defense minister in Lebanon’s new government, making her the first woman in an Arab country to hold the post.

Akar, one of six women named to Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet, was also appointed deputy prime minister.

Diab’s naming of a cabinet ended a painful wait for Lebanon, but the government was promptly scorned by protesters and faces the Herculean task of saving a collapsing economy.

More than a month after he was designated, with backing from the powerful Shiite terror group Hezbollah, and nearly three months after his predecessor Saad Hariri resigned under pressure from the street, Diab on Tuesday announced his cabinet.

The academic and former education minister, who was little-known in Lebanon until last month, insisted in his first comments as premier that his cabinet was a technocratic one that would strive to meet protesters’ demands.

“This is a government that represents the aspirations of the demonstrators who have been mobilized nationwide for more than three months,” he said.

He said his government “will strive to meet their demands for an independent judiciary, for the recovery of embezzled funds, for the fight against illegal gains.”

This photo released by the Lebanese Government shows the women ministers in the new government, from left to right; Minister of Labor Lamia Yammine, Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najem, Defense Minister Zeina Akar, Minister of Youth and Sports Vartie Ohanian, Minister of Information Manal Abdul-Samad and Minister of Displaced Ghada Shreim, posing for an official picture at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, January 22, 2020. (Dalati Nohra/Lebanese Government via AP)

Groups of demonstrators had gathered in the streets of Beirut before thw cabinet was even unveiled, blocking off a main street in the center of the capital where violent scuffles with the police left dozens wounded over the weekend.

Close to the parliament building, protesters attempted to rip down barbed wire and throw stones at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannon, an AFP journalist witnessed.

The post of foreign minister, which had been held by President Michel Aoun’s controversial son-in-law Gebran Bassil, was handed to respected diplomat Nassif Hitti.

The new cabinet is made up of unfamiliar figures, many of them academics and former advisers, but protesters were quick to argue that the absence of the biggest names in Lebanon’s widely reviled hereditary political elite was but a smokescreen.

‘Not serious’

“We want a new Lebanon, a Lebanon with no corruption,” Charbel Kahi, a 37-year-old farmer, told AFP as fellow protesters beat drums behind him.

“They are not taking the Lebanese people seriously with this government,” he said.

Diab admitted that “Lebanon is experiencing a difficult time in its history” and called for stability but within minutes of his address protesters were out in the streets of several cities, including Tripoli, Sidon and Byblos.

Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut, argued that the idea of a genuinely technocratic government in Lebanon was “wishful thinking.”

“Behind every candidate, there is a political party backing their nomination,” he said.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab (L) arrives for the inaugural cabinet meeting at the presidential palace in Baabda, east of the capital Beirut, on January 22, 2020. (AFP)

Paula Yacoubian, a former journalist and independent MP, scorned the new line-up as “patches on old clothes.”

“Hassan Diab did not keep his promise of forming a government of independent” experts, she said.

Diab, a 61-year-old engineering professor at the American University of Beirut and self-professed technocrat, had come under pressure on both the political and economic fronts.

Every day that passed without a cabinet had fueled the anger of protesters and tested the patience of foreign donors warning that the quasi-bankrupt state could ill afford further delays.

Mission impossible?

Donors and citizens are pinning their hopes on a new government to spearhead reforms, unlock billions in international aid and help stabilize a plummeting currency.

“The task that awaits any cabinet during this serious period is Herculean,” said Karim Mufti, a political scientist.

“In view of the multidimensional nature of the crisis, it seems difficult to envisage short-term solutions to the country’s financial, economic and social problems.”

A grinding dollar liquidity crisis and informal caps on withdrawals of the greenback have compounded the crisis, leaving Lebanon on the brink of default.

Anti-government protesters sit on chairs waving Lebanese flags as burning tires cut off a section of the Beirut-Byblos highway in the coastal city of Byblos, January 21, 2020, as they protest the newly-announced government formed by Prime Minister Hassan Diab. (Joesph Eid/AFP)

The outgoing government included all of Lebanon’s political factions, but Hariri’s Sunni-dominated movement and some of his allies have opted to stay out of the new cabinet.

This leaves the small country of six million led by a government dominated by the sanctions-hit Hezbollah and its allies.

Both the Christian bloc of President Michel Aoun and the Shiite Amal party of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri are political allies of the Iran-backed terror organization.

Observers have warned that such a lopsided government could struggle to foster enough goodwill at home and abroad to implement much-needed reforms.

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