While Wassim Mansouri was a relatively obscure figure until recently, he has become the subject of widespread speculation as a potential successor to Riad Salameh, whose term as central bank head is scheduled to end on July 31.
Mansouri was named to his current position by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who happens to be his distant cousin. His appointment is said to be driven by two considerations: First, Mansouri is of Shia background, which is a crucial criterion for the position; second, he is perceived to be a technocrat.
With two years left in his mandate, Mansouri has been thrust into the limelight. This sudden attention comes after French courts issued an international arrest warrant against Salameh, who is suspected of corruption in various cases, just 12 days ago.
Salameh, who has been ensconced as the chief of the Banque du Liban (BDL) since 1993, has stated on several occasions that he will remain in his post until the end of his term and has strongly recommended his first deputy succeed him.
“Wassim Mansouri will replace me at the end of my term in office,” the governor said in a televised interview last Thursday.
Salameh’s statements followed recent remarks by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, opening to door to the possibility of shuffling confessional appointments, citing the February appointment of Elias Baissiri [a Christian] to replace General Abbas Ibrahim as the head of the General Security — a post held by a Shia since 1998.
Hezbollah argues that a caretaker government cannot designate a new governor, especially in the absence of a president. Furthermore, the Code of Money and Credit stipulates that, in the event of a vacancy at the head of the central bank, the first deputy governor assumes the reins.
‘He won’t take it unless we force him to’
Appointing a Shia central bank governor would likely deepen the sense of marginalization among the country’s Christians, since the post has long been occupied by a member of that community.
Berri too is said to be dismayed at the prospect of a Shia BDL head, since he does not want to burden his own community with such responsibilities in the midst of an acute financial crisis.
If Mansouri were to be appointed BDL’s interim head, he would be the first Shia in the country’s history to occupy the job.
“It would be an unprecedented event,” a source within BDL told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
It is alleged that circles close to Berri are warning that, should this scenario materialize, the slightest financial mishap would prompt everyone to point the finger at the “Shia” governor — an argument that fails to persuade skeptics.
“It’s just a role-playing game between Amal and Hezbollah,” claimed a former aide to the deputy governor, speaking anonymously. “Wassim Mansouri is Berri’s man. The Amal leader is his ultimate political mentor.”
The anonymous source says this entire situation is a “bluff” intended to hide a truth that might potentially infuriate the Christian community.
“After the Finance Ministry, which the Shia community fought hard to obtain, it is now the head of the central bank that will fall to them,” said a former Christian minister, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the issue.
While there has been widespread speculation, a BDL source told L’Orient-Le Jour that Mansouri, originally from Aitaroun (Nabatieh), is reluctant to accept the post.
“Without guarantees that the banking sector will be brought to heel and that the political class will implement reforms needed to end the crisis,” which would enable him to pursue a new monetary policy, “he won’t take on the role unless forced.”
If he does take the job, he will not “shirk his responsibilities,” the BDL source said.
Indeed, it is rumored that Mansouri has been preparing himself to take the job.
The first deputy’s detractors believe he is not entirely displeased with the idea of being appointed BDL head, even if it means temporarily setting aside his political ambitions.
“He has always said he dreamed of becoming a minister,” said a Lebanese University student who knew him.
Mansouri has an impressive academic background, having received a scholarship from the Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie’s doctoral mobility program in Lebanon. This opportunity allowed him to complete his PhD in public law, specializing in constitutional law, at France’s University of Montpellier.
Mansouri formerly served as director of LU’s francophone law faculty, and he continues to teach there.
“His relationship with Ali Hassan Khalil was linked to his desire to take his place,” says one of his former colleagues.
For more than seven years, Mansouri was a close adviser to Khalil, who served as finance minister in Tammam Salam’s government from 2014 to December 2016, and again until January 2020 under Saad Hariri.
‘A man in the shadows’
The deputy governor founded his own consultancy firm, Mansouri & Associates, specializing in business law, where he is said to be “looking forward” to the resumption of his professional activities.
A tax lawyer, also speaking on condition of anonymity, commends him as one of the noteworthy individuals whom Berri has successfully brought to prominence.
Mansouri is said to embody the persona of a secular technocrat, which is crucial for the parliamentary speaker’s efforts to restore his public image.
The lawyer says Mansouri often jokes among acquaintances that, “I only discovered my Shia identity when I was offered the position of deputy governor.”
Mansouri is said to be passionate about constitutional law and he has served as Berri’s legal advisor as well as lawyer, representing the Amal movement in court on multiple occasions.
Given that his background is primarily law, critics, including lawyers and economists, express concerns about Mansouri's qualifications to oversee financial affairs and assume control of BDL.
In his defense, a source close to BDL said that his role as deputy governor was limited to “regulation and legislation,” like the other three deputy governors, none of whom have a background in finance.
Nevertheless, Mansouri is said to have acquired knowledge in the financial sector from his experience advising Khalil.
Mansouri led all the talks with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Lebanon.
“Mansouri is an expert in financing terrorism,” a financial lawyer, who met him on several occasions, told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity, “a man in the shadows, discreet and very efficient.”
Breaking from the system, or reinforcing it?
“Accepting such a position in these circumstances is far from a godsend,” tax lawyer Karim Daher said to L’Orient-Le Jour of Mansouri’s possible appointment.
Daher oversees a committee set up by the Beirut Bar Association to defend the rights of Lebanese depositors and recently had the opportunity to work with Mansouri, on the terms of Circular No. 165 aimed at addressing the unfair charges and commissions banks have imposed on their customers.
“Mansouri took the time and trouble to clarify certain points and listened carefully to our requests for clarification and comment. Our meetings have been nothing but positive,” Daher said.
Questions persist over Mansouri’s proximity to Salameh.
Will he be prepared to break from Salameh’s legacy?
“Salameh may have put Mansouri forward as his successor in the hope that he will be lenient with him once he is in charge,” a former BDL manager told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.
The anonymous source says Mansouri has expressed contradictory sentiments about Salameh, saying, “Personally, I maintain a good relationship with Salameh. However, professionally, we often have significant disagreements.”
Changing the economic and financial strategy the current BDL chief has pursued can only be accomplished through collaboration with the political class and the banking sector, according to a central bank source.
“The responsibility of generating revenue for the Treasury lies with tax policies, not the BDL. In essence, the BDL has mandated that the political class should only spend within the means of what the Treasury earns,” explained the BDL source.
Currently, the central bank’s reserve requirements align with its available reserves, having dipped just below the $10 billion threshold.
Mansouri and his colleagues advocate for a floating exchange rate and a transformation of the BDL Sayrafa platform into a genuine foreign exchange platform rather than just a registry.
“This monetary policy may be unpopular initially, but will yield positive results in the short term,” the source said.
It appears that there are no significant changes on the horizon. The banking community and the political class, with Berri at the helm, seem to lack the desire to deviate from Salameh’s economic policies.
“Salameh chose Mansouri as his successor due to a strong belief in his capability to uphold a minimum level of stability,” Daher said. “Together, Wassim Mansouri and the other three vice-governors can provide a guarantee insofar as there will probably be collegial decision-making.”
This management style would sharply contrast with that of Salameh, who held absolute authority.
Christians will not be reassured by any indications of change that would accompany an interim appointment of Mansouri.
“I fear that Mansouri, due to his community background, is destined to occupy this position for the entire six-year term as part of a potential arrangement,” the former Christian minister said.
Indeed, it is said some are asking what Mansouri could achieve without at least six years and a unified team.
In recent days, the major Christian parties appear to be leaning toward accepting Mansouri’s appointment as BDL head. Perhaps a potential agreement is in the making?
This story was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.
While Wassim Mansouri was a relatively obscure figure until recently, he has become the subject of widespread speculation as a potential successor to Riad Salameh, whose term as central bank head is scheduled to end on July 31.Mansouri was named to his current position by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who happens to be his distant cousin. His appointment is said to be driven by two...