Huda al-Husseini

The Lebanese Should Think About Electing a Woman President

When I asked a friend about May Al-Rihani, who has presented her candidacy for the Presidency of the Lebanese Republic, he intuitively replied that if she had inherited the qualities of her paternal uncle Amin Al-Rihani, he would be delighted to see her ascend to this position after the political leadership in this country hit rock bottom. Amin Al-Rihani was a thinker, writer, philosopher, and reformer who roamed the Arab world to familiarize himself with its kings and leaders and write about them. His sole objective was to bring them closer to one another.

This is what Lebanon’s great figures were like, and this is what “Lebanon the message” was like. This is what we hope to see from May Al-Rihani, who would bring integrity back to the presidency and restore respect for and confidence in the head of state.

However, regardless of May Al-Rihani’s family background and her significant personal achievements, a woman becoming president would make Lebanon a symbol of civility once again, after the men in power wreaked havoc with their corruption, devastated its people, and ruined the country’s reputation.

May is not a member of any political party. She is an independent who is open to all parties “because everyone is Lebanese.” Moreover, Lebanon can take pride in her international experience and her accomplishments. She signed “global development” contracts intended to link education and the labor market with forty countries. That is, her field is the economy and finding jobs for graduates.

But what pushed her, “a woman who has excelled and leads a comfortable life,” to run for the presidency in Lebanon?” Why not run to be a deputy in parliament, for example? Rihani admits that running was not her idea. Rather, it was repeatedly suggested to her during meetings with members of the Lebanese diaspora. She used to constantly hear the question: Why don’t you run for the presidency?

Although her faith in Lebanon had not been shaken, she brushed off the idea. That was until the question began to be posed from inside the country. When she agreed to go for it, she set two priorities: she set a plan of action and formed a council of advisors, and she made the same demand of everyone, radical change and reform. “This can be achieved by a president who works in tandem with the prime minister and his government. I am an idealist and a realist at the same time,” she tells me.

I asked about her time at the University of Maryland, where she was a professor whose research aimed to deepen mutual understanding between East and West, as well as

reshaping Arab thought through the works of Gibran Khalil Gibran, Amin al-Rihani and Michael Naima (there is no woman among them). However, in what ways did May fail, and in what way did she succeed in changing the Arab mindset? How did these writers influence her, especially her uncle Amin, who had a good relationship with King Abdul Aziz Al Saud?

Rihani compensated for the absence of women from her research by establishing and overseeing an online English-language encyclopedia about Arab women pioneers and leaders. It covers the stories of 125 Arab women, among them May Ziadeh. Her concern is equality, understanding the other, and bringing Eastern and Western points of view closer together.

However, she was not totally successful. “Equality is supported, but when it comes to leadership positions, questions are always raised. Some men continue to believe that women are not fit to run a country. They accept the idea of a woman leading a company but not the state. Lying to themselves, their pretext is that women have children.”

When asked about her uncle, Amin Al-Rihani, she says: “They were five siblings: Amin was the older brother of my father Albert, who got married after his brother Amin had died. And so, I never met my uncle. Nonetheless, my sibling and I were raised in his home and carried his reputation. My father published most of his brother’s books. Our house was brimming with Arab and Lebanese writers and politicians, all of them talking about my Amin. Later on in his life, my father established the Amin Al-Rihani Museum, which my brothers and I have been running since my father passed away.” She then adds that she has “read all of my uncle’s books more than once, especially The Kings of the Arabs, The Rihani Essay, and The Heart of Lebanon; and I refer to his work frequently.”

I asked her: How do you feel about the fact that your Christian uncle visited Islamic holy sites? May explains that Amin Al-Rihani believed that all religions should come together, as their spiritual message is one and the same, to elevate humanity as a whole. Islam is not only for Muslims, and Christianity is not only for Christians.

And she adds, “You might be surprised to hear that my husband, Zuhair Al-Faqih, is a Lebanese Durzi man from Aley. His father, Asaad Al-Faqih, was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s first ambassador to Washington and the United Nations. This was in 1947, back when the Kingdom still appointed some non-nationals ambassadors. My father-in-law was a lawyer who graduated from the Saint Joseph University in Beirut. He mastered Arabic, French and English and worked at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After impressing King Abdul Aziz, he was made ambassador. To put it briefly, both my family and my husband’s family have links to Saudi Arabia, and if I become president, the first thing I would do is reestablish strong ties with the Kingdom.

When I asked her to tell me more about her uncle Amin’s relationship with King Abdul Aziz, she replied: “My uncle and the king became very close friends, and they exchanged dear letters. They have been published in the book “The Letters Exchanged by King Abdul Aziz Al Saud and Amin Al-Rayhani” (around 200 pages). I saw pictures of the king and my uncle in the King Abdul Aziz Museum in Riyadh (5 of them). In one picture, they can be seen together on the stairs of an airplane. This is what the Lebanese were like.

Shifting the conversation from what the Lebanese used to be like to those of today’s diaspora, I ask what the Lebanese abroad have told her to encourage her to run? Since May heads the Washington bureau of the World Lebanese Cultural Union, which has branches in 30 countries, other members are the ones who voiced their support. “If you become president, investments will pour into Lebanon.”

I asked her what she would do to tackle corruption, which has become so prevalent that we have become afraid that it may now be in our blood. Many Lebanese, both residents and expatriates, are not corrupt, she replies. They ardently believe “that our country cannot be put on the right path unless we eradicate corruption. While they are not the majority, they are not the minority either. And I frequently reiterate this point, especially in conversations with deputies: I have one condition if you decide to elect me, the prime minister appointed by parliament must share my principles, vision, and program. I am not willing to work with a corrupt figure who seeks to stymie my work. I want to cooperate with a prime minister who is clean, like me, so that we can agree on and prioritize reform in all of our endeavors. The ministers must also be like us. This might impede my path to the presidency. But if I am appointed, I would work 14 hours a day. Once I make a decision, I do not back down; I press forward, quickly. I want to use all of my experiences and all my international and Arab relations to serve Lebanon.”

May then discusses Article 95 of the constitution - the Taif Accord - which calls for gradually breaking the link between religious affiliation and political position. No one wants to implement it, she says. “But I do, and no one can intimidate me.” She also stresses that she would not tolerate spoil-sharing. “I will not promise any party any ministry in exchange for giving me their vote.”

When I ask her what would you do about Hezbollah’s arsenal, she replies: “I met with two party members, and they asked me this question. I told them this: We are both Lebanese, and Lebanon is like any other country in the world. Our laws are founded on

the constitution, which stipulates that only the Lebanese army and security forces have the right to carry arms. Given the position we are currently in, we cannot fully implement the constitution, as a party has decided to defend South Lebanon. I understand you. However, a time will come when we must come to an understanding about how this arsenal can be put under the umbrella or tent of the constitution. One of them replied: ‘How would we do that?’ I replied that I would do it through dialogue with Hezbollah and with all the other officials and parties in Lebanon, through which we could set the goals and come to an agreement regarding the implementation and chronology of these goals.”

May Al-Rihani also believes discussing this matter with some Arab League countries could be an option and that a solution based on the constitution could be found with the help of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, and Qatar. She mentions the agreement that Saudi Arabia has signed with Iran. Article 6 of this agreement states that Iran will not support militias in the Arab world. “I will demand the implementation of this clause if I become president,” she stressed.