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Cablegate: Lebanon: Female Politicians and Civil Society

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PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHLB #1664/01 3261435
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 211435Z NOV 08
FM AMEMBASSY BEIRUT
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3623
INFO RUEHEE/ARAB LEAGUE COLLECTIVE
RUCNMEM/EU MEMBER STATES COLLECTIVE
RUCNDT/USMISSION USUN NEW YORK 3186
RUEHNO/USMISSION USNATO 3393
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RHMFISS/CDR USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL

UNCLAS BEIRUT 001664

SIPDIS

DEPT FOR NEA/FO, NEA/ELA
ALSO FOR IO A/S HOOK, PDAS WARLICK
P FOR DRUSSELL AND RRANGASWAMY
USUN FOR KHALILZAD/WOLFF/SCHEDLBAUER/GERMAIN
NSC FOR ABRAMS/RAMCHAND/YERGER/MCDERMOTT

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PREL PGOV PTER PINR UNSC LE SY
SUBJECT: LEBANON: FEMALE POLITICIANS AND CIVIL SOCIETY
LEADERS: CHANGING THE SYSTEM

SUMMARY
-------

1. (SBU) Participants in a recent MEPI U.S. election
observer program, representing women from both March 14 and
the opposition, said education on political participation is
needed to change Lebanese women's perception of politics as a
"dirty game." At a November 19 lunch hosted by the
Ambassador, the women urged changes to electoral, municipal,
and family laws to encourage female representation in
politics and ensure social equality. Participants noted that
an atmosphere of security was necessary before Lebanese feel
confident to vote for candidates based on qualifications and
not sectarian or familial loyalty. They said change within
the system was "impossible" and argued the need to change the
system itself. Although they mentioned media campaigns as a
positive first step to improve the image of women in
politics, more practical plans are necessary before female
involvement in politics becomes the norm. End summary.

CHANGING IMAGE OF POLITICS THROUGH EDUCATION
--------------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Recent participants of a MEPI-funded election
observer trip to the United States, at a November 19 luncheon
hosted by the Ambassador, focused on changing the way
Lebanese women view politics. Participants said young women
in Lebanon view politics as a "dirty game." Unless they can
rely on extensive familial or political backing, women choose
to avoid the intense scrutiny and criticism they see as
inherent in the political process by not running in
parliamentary elections.

3. (SBU) Change, participants noted, begins by educating
women -- in the home, in schools, and through women
leadership programs at the university level -- to involve
themselves in politics; such projects are currently scarce.
Young Lebanese, in general, also lack the motivation to stay
in Lebanon; growing a culture of political activism through
education could encourage young women to take political roles
in their own country and not leave for better-paying jobs in
Gulf countries, as is the current practice. Participants
were struck during their trip to the U.S. that American
citizens believed their individual votes mattered. Women in
Lebanon need first to learn to vote based on their own
viewpoint -- not that of their parents, husband, or
confession -- and to be activists before they can be
successful political candidates, they said.

4. (SBU) Dunia El-Khoury, head of an non-governmental
organization (NGO) in Baalbeck and affiliated with Samir
Geagea's Lebanese Forces, noted women like herself are able
to accomplish more through NGOs outside the bureaucratic, and
corrupt, government system. Ferial Abu-Hamdan, a former
member of the Shouf municipal council and allied with March
14, suggested women should first become active at the
municipal level; she argued candidates at the local level are
more likely to be elected based on technical skills than
candidates for parliamentary elections.

NEED TO CHANGE LEBANESE LAWS
----------------------------

5. (SBU) The women unanimously agreed that new electoral laws
were required to increase female representation in politics.
A quota setting the number of women in parliament would be
especially helpful. (Note: Some, though not all, advocated
introducing a women's quota into the recently passed
electoral law. End note.) However, an "unofficial quota,"
namely through efforts by political leaders to include female
candidates on their lists would perhaps, participants
thought, begin to normalize the idea of women as
parliamentary candidates. Abu-Hamdan argued the municipal
election law -- which currently forbids relatives of
municipal council members from campaigning for a spot
themselves -- needs amending. Municipal laws also allocate
voters by hometown, not current place of residence; this
hinders technically-sound candidates with plans of work for
their towns from beating candidates with money or more
established positions. Additionally, Sleem Sumar, lawyer and

member of Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, cited the
need to change family laws to further social equality before
advances are made in the political arena.

SOVEREIGNTY AND SECURITY FIRST
------------------------------

6. (SBU) The need for security and sovereignty before major
political change was a common refrain during the luncheon.
The women noted that the Lebanese must feel confident that
they will be protected by the state system before they vote
for politicians based on ideas and platforms. They explained
that daily needs are still addressed by sectarian leaders;
voters will continue to vote for the leaders who provide them
jobs, money, and protection until the state does.
Participants stressed the Lebanese Armed Forces should be the
only armed defender of the state. Participants opined that
about 30 percent of Lebanese were unaffiliated with either
March 14 or the opposition and would support honest,
independent candidates.

REDO THE SYSTEM
---------------

7. (SBU) Lamia Osseiran, an independent-pro March 14 social
activist from a prominent Shi'a family, summed up the group's
views when she called change within Lebanon's current
sectarian system "impossible." She asserted that the Taif
Accord, which ended Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war, failed
in its intention of making government representation more
fairly distributed among Sunni, Shia, and Christian sects.
Instead, she said, Taif divided Lebanese society into
confessions, making secularism impossible. No side would
accept a secular representative since a certain number of
sectarian representatives are allotted under the current
system; a secular candidate would weaken the sect's voice in
local and national politics.

8. (SBU) Ghada Al-Yafi, an independent and daughter of former
Lebanese Prime Minister Abdallah El-Yafi with political
aspirations for the 2009 parliamentary elections, offered a
proposal -- supported around the table -- for the
restructuring of the Lebanese political system. She argued
that parliament, assigned to make laws for all Lebanese,
should, in fact, make laws for all Lebanese. They should not
focus on their particular region or sect when making laws for
the whole country and should, therefore, not be elected
solely by their home constituents. The cabinet would serve
as the sectarian representative body and the parliament would
be elected by all Lebanese. This would require that
politicians do more than offer patronage to a select group to
win office. Parliamentary candidates would need to appeal to
a broad slice of Lebanon and, supposedly, have more
qualifications for the role of lawmaker. Municipal councils
-- elected from people living in the region -- would act as
place of first complaint for local issues (a role currently
held by party bosses and MPs).

9. (SBU) Al-Yafi said the sectarian makeup of the Lebanese
system hindered women in particular, as party bosses. When
faced with the choice of a male or a female for a specific
seat in a specific system, rarely pick a female candidate.
Until elections move away from hand-picking strong candidates
for particular seats on party lists, women will be
disadvantaged.

10. (SBU) Al Yafi and many other participants were impressed
by the transparency in the electoral process they observed in
the U.S. They named improvements in transparency as a first
step to improving the quality of politics in Lebanon. The
women, representing both sides of the Lebanese political
spectrum, agreed that they preferred to work with or compete
against honest people with different viewpoints than corrupt
people with similar political stances to their own. However,
they noted that currently corrupt politics feed off of more
corrupt politics; March 14 and March 8 opposition leaders
have "dirty hands," so neither side forces the other to
reform.

PRACTICAL PLANS, THE MEDIA

--------------------------

11. (SBU) Agreeing that big ideas need practical plans,
several participants mentioned media as a useful tool to
bring women into politics. They discussed using themselves
as an example of women from opposing political parties who
are working together with the goal of improving Lebanon.
They agreed that younger women -- who commonly have no desire
to participate in politics -- need role models who
acknowledge changing Lebanon's political process will take
time but believe the change is possible.

12. (SBU) Interestingly, participants mentioned Hizballah as
an organization that genuinely encourages women to
participate in grass roots activities and in lower-level
politics. They cited an implicit discouragement by Hizballah
for women to run in parliamentary elections, but noted that a
prominent Shi'a woman, Rima Fakhry, has served on Hizballah's
political bureau for two years.

COMMENT
-------

13. (SBU) The themes echoed throughout the November 19
luncheon suggest that the number of female MPs (five out of
128 seats) will not increase significantly in the Spring 2009
elections. However, political party outreach and activism
programs, along with pressure on party bosses, could improve
women's chances in 2010 municipal elections and 2013
parliamentary elections.

14. (SBU) MEPI alumni present seemed genuinely motivated by
their trip to the U.S. Most have not yet formed concrete
project proposals to start changing the Lebanese political
system or to increase female representatives in politics, but
some of their ideas -- such as urging party bosses to put
women candidates on lists, particularly in uncontested seats
-- could start a positive trend. A recent NDI study notes
lack of family backing as a common obstacle for potential
female candidates. It also suggests party bosses will pick
known, family-backed male allies over the independent female
candidates mentioned. End comment.

SISON

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