Riad Salameh’s term as head of the Banque du Liban (BDL) is set to expire at the end of July. Wassim Mansouri, the first deputy governor of the BDL, a Shiite (as per the custom) and the expected successor, has threatened to resign along with his three colleagues if a new BDL head is not appointed by the end of the month.
In a surprising turn of events, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri gave his approval for appointments to be made by the caretaker cabinet. On the other hand, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati appears uncertain. He is cautious about taking any action that could lead to backlash, especially from the Christian parties.
Adding to the complexity of the situation is the possibility of Salameh remaining in his post, which is still being considered. However, Mikati is reluctant to pursue this option considering legal proceedings against Salameh taking place in several countries.
What will happen after July 31? How can this deadlock be resolved amidst the tense political and financial climate? Will the key players be able to reach a consensus on the future governor? L’Orient-Le Jour reached out to the major political parties to shed light on their sentiments.
The Free Patriotic Movement
Salameh has long been a thorn in the side of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and its leader, Gebran Bassil. This does not however mean that the party will support the Mikati cabinet in appointing a new BDL governor.
From an FPM viewpoint, the constitution is clear: a caretaker government should only handle day-to-day affairs. This rule applies to the Salameh situation as well. Ministers close to the FPM have been boycotting Mikati’s cabinet meetings and accuse him of violating the constitution by holding said meetings in the first place.
“There is no possibility of the caretaker government appointing a new governor before the election of a president,” a former FPM MP told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity.
The former MP believes that the cabinet has two alternatives to avoid a leadership vacuum at the central bank: either appoint a legal guardian or designate Wassim Mansouri as the interim governor until a future head of state is elected.
As for the recent threat made by the four deputy governors, the former MP dismissed it as an unacceptable headlong rush. “None of these officials considered resigning when Salameh was engaged in questionable financial practices,” the MP said.
Hezbollah and the Amal Movement
Berri played a significant role in reshuffling the deck. Initially seeming to support the Mansouri option for Salameh’s succession, he surprised everyone on Thursday by stating that he favored “appointments of necessity, whatever they may be.”
“In a current caretaker cabinet, necessity is law,” Berri said in an interview with the Hezbollah affiliated newspaper, al-Akhbar. These remarks suggest that he has withdrawn his support for Mansouri.
Could this explain the subsequent joint communiqué by the four deputy governors? Nothing is certain at this point.
“We would prefer a governor to be appointed as soon as possible to prevent any adverse economic and financial consequences,” a source close to Berri told L’Orient-Le Jour on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
These statements underscore the divergent opinions between Amal and Hezbollah on the matter.
“Our position remains unchanged: the caretaker government cannot make appointments. Wassim Mansouri [being the first deputy governor] should be the one to replace Riad Salameh,” said Hezbollah spokesperson Mohammad Afif Nabulsi, emphasizing that the party has no preference for the position.
The Progressive Socialist Party
The Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), led by Walid Jumblatt, has been critical of Berri, who was traditionally a partner of Joumblatt.
The PSP camp favors a consensus approach that would result in the appointment of a successor to Salameh. This was revealed by MP Marwan Hamadeh, who spoke to L’Orient-Le Jour.
This approach aims to ensure that Mikati does not bear the sole responsibility for such a decision, given the current political tensions. Criticizing the four deputy governors along with Berri, Hamadeh said “If reaching an agreement proves impossible, Wassim Mansouri will have to step in, without any personal preferences.”
Hamadeh further emphasized that resigning from public administration is not an easy task and suggested that the resignation of Mansouri and his colleagues can be simply rejected.
“They must fulfill their responsibilities,” he said.
Regarding the selection process for the new governor, Hamadeh assured that his camp does not have a specific candidate in mind. “We will examine the list of names and choose the most competent individual,” he said.
The Lebanese Forces
Among the Christian parties, the Lebanese Forces (LF) stands alone in supporting the appointment of a new BDL head by a caretaker government handling day-to-day affairs. The LF argues that exceptional circumstances warrant exceptional decisions.
“As a matter of principle, we support the appointment of a governor,” LF MP Razi Hajj told L’Orient-Le Jour.
However, Hajj expressed concerns that the government and its supporters could make appointments based on favoritism, referring to Amal and Hezbollah.
He added that the LF’s top priority is the election of a president to ensure the proper functioning of institutions, including BDL.
“We are not responsible for the looming threat of a vacuum at the central bank. It is the responsibility of those who obstruct the election [of a new head of state],” he said in an apparent jab at Hezbollah and its allies, who have repeatedly prevented the quorum needed in electoral sessions before the second round of voting.
Asked if the LF had begun considering potential candidates for a potential BDL head, Hajj responded with a definitive “No.” He stated that the LF did not currently have any candidates in mind for the position.
Hajj further clarified that even when the name of Camille Abu Sleiman, a former labor minister with close ties to the LF, was mentioned in discussions, the party did not express their support for him.
The Kataeb, a party known for its strong opposition to Salameh, firmly prioritizes the election of a president. The party emphasized that this is its absolute focus.
Within Kataeb circles, there is a reluctance to consider the choices and preparations for the post-Salameh period. They stress that the crisis goes beyond the threat of the BDL’s paralysis.
A senior Kataeb official, who requested anonymity, highlighted that the central bank is just one facet of the broader crisis, emphasizing that the country as a whole is currently at a standstill.
Questioning the need to find precedents to justify constitutional breaches, the official pointed out that the camp obstructing the presidential election bears responsibility for the vacuum that endangers both the BDL and the army, particularly with the upcoming retirement of army chief Joseph Aoun in January 2024.
“The solution is straightforward. Nabih Berri, as Parliament Speaker, simply needs to fulfill his duty and call for an electoral session, thereby resolving the current impasse,” the source said.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.