Nayla Geagea during an interview.

Nayla Geagea: The human rights lawyer in Beirut who doesn’t know how to drive

As she sits in one of her usual bars, some ask her about work, others about her take on the elections, and few even hand her apples from their grocery bags as a hello. As a true Beiruti, Nayla Geagea can’t go five minutes without being saluted by the dwellers of the neighborhood.

Geagea is no pop star, nor a prominent figure of the Lebanese political scene, at least not yet. She introduces herself as a “lawyer, researcher, and political activist.” Her first political act was in 2008, when she fought to remove the religious affiliation from national identity cards. “It was a very clear stand that I didn’t want to be related to the state by my religion,” she explained.

Since then, the lawyer has been working on various projects as a legal consultant, with international organizations, local NGOs, or research institutes.

“I’ve recently been working on policies, reforms and law revisions, as there are not a lot of lawyers with a background in this domain,” Geagea said. With a formation in human rights, she holds a certain affinity to vulnerable groups. “Where I feel that I can help, I want to help.”

After graduating from the Lebanese University with a law degree, she earned a Master’s degree in Aix-En-Provence, France, “that had human rights, traditional justice and geopolitics.” Geagea then completed a nine-month program at The Hague, home of the International Criminal Court, and one of the most prestigious destinations for any aspiring lawyer.

Although her journey to become a lawyer wasn’t easy, it was always traced out. She only made it happen.

“Since I was kid,” Geagea explained, “people referred to me as ‘The Lawyer’ because I talk a lot, and I like to defend people.” As a 13-year-old, she convinced the school administration to allow the sale of sandwiches by students during recess, in order to raise money for donations to the organizations their school would visit each week.

After interrupting her engineering studies at the American University of Beirut at mid-semester, because of financial and personal reasons, Geagea didn’t want to waste a year. She registered in the law department at the Lebanese University.

“It was a purely pragmatic choice,” she explained, “but it’s the best thing I did in my life. I can’t imagine myself doing something else right now.” At that time, little did Geagea know that this would be the first of many choices that would shape her career.

In 2006, a day after earning her bachelor’s degree, the July war exploded. The young woman who was supposed to travel abroad to complete a master’s in the field of corporate law, decided to stay and joined a program called “Mouwatinoun.” Her desire to help and her love for Lebanon took over.

There, she met people who influenced her to pick a master’s program focused more on human rights. A year later, she travelled to Aix-en-Provence, to study that particular program.

Moreover, after nine months at The Hague, Geagea was offered a three-year position at the ICC. Although she aced the test, “came a weekend, I don’t know what happened,” she said, “and I came back.

“It was an amazing experience, I learned a lot, but it was very bureaucratic, very ‘sitting behind a desk.’ I felt like coming back here. I had no job. I had nothing here. I just came back. I struggled a bit, but it worked out.”

During the 2018 elections, Geagea presented herself as a candidate in the Beirut 2 district for the Shia seat, before withdrawing. Only one civil list could take her in, “but we didn’t agree on a common ground,” she explained.  “I didn’t want to create a second civil list, and break the initial one.”

An important point the lawyer highlights is the need to have precise, well-constructed and well-written political programs.

“I don’t feel like we understand correctly how to work in politics,” she explained, “we still live in a bubble. We also need to learn how to work together. […] We need to be solid, the challenge is going to be to stay together after the elections. But I’m very optimistic. If we can do a critical assessment of how we worked, it will be a very crucial step forward.”

Another issue Geagea encountered during her campaign was the gender biased reactions towards her.

“On a political level, I felt there was a problem,” she said. “People behaved in a very misogynist way, and it came from the people you least expect it. When someone says ‘Nayla is very liberal and progressive, she will lose us votes, it’s a problem. They would never dare to say the same thing about a man. People even ask me why I victimize myself. Those are the things that a man in politics would never hear, and here, I felt that my gender was actually part of the equation.”

Though justice and law occupy her life and work, her heart lies in human and social sciences. With a passion for people and their behaviors, psychology, psychoanalysis, and anthropology are amongst the domains she would like to pursue. And it’s for that same reason that she loves Lebanon.

When asked what she loves the most in her country, she doesn’t hesitate to answer “the taxi drivers.” Indeed, Geagea doesn’t like to drive, and doesn’t know how to. “Since I was 13, I use taxis, and I have learned so much from them.”

“The only reason why I would one day learn how to drive, is if I’ll be able to afford a house in the mountains. But for now, I do enjoy my time with the drivers, and strolling around in Beirut.”