Lebanon’s Top Banker a Virtual Prisoner in His Own Building
Edmond Naim, governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, is in the unique position of holding the purse strings of Lebanon’s rival Christian and Muslim governments.
But he is a virtual prisoner in the bank building where he has lived for 19 months.
Naim is a Maronite Catholic and the bank is in Muslim West Beirut. For him to leave could be dangerous.
The bank nonetheless is the only government institution that remains intact in Lebanon’s 5-month-old political crisis, which has split the government, the army and every other department down the middle.
This has given the 70-year-old Naim unprecedented powers.
He said he bankrolls “the basic needs” of both governments, including food and fuel imports, to prevent a complete collapse of Lebanon’s fractured public services.
In June, 1987, when Premier Rashid Karami was assassinated, Naim moved into the bank headquarters and has never left.
“It’s more practical to live in the bank,” he said in an interview in his plush sixth-floor office. “The streets aren’t safe.”
Has Apartment Atop Bank
So now he lives in a two-room apartment atop the seven-story building, which is guarded by 50 policemen.
“I cook, wash my dishes, do my laundry and tend my plants there,” Naim said.
His wife travels from the family home in Christian East Beirut “every two weeks for a weekend with me at the bank,” Naim said.
Hedda Naim, the former Hedda Hofer of Detroit, is a naturalized American of German descent.
The political crisis that began in September, when President Amin Gemayel’s six-year term expired with no successor elected because of sectarian bickering, left Naim the man in the middle.
Gemayel named his Maronite army commander, Gen. Michel Aoun, to head a caretaker military Cabinet until a new president is elected.
Muslim and leftist factions refused to recognize Aoun and backed acting Premier Salim Hoss, a Sunni Muslim.
“The central bank finances the whole of Lebanon according to a formula of equality and in line with the population and area each of the governments rules,” Naim said.
“Naim’s the only official in this country behaving like a father to all the Lebanese,” said Adnan Badra, a Sunni businessman in West Beirut.
$5 Billion in Reserves
Although Lebanon’s economy is in peril after nearly 14 years of civil war, the Central Bank has gold reserves estimated at about $5 billion, with $800 million in foreign currency.
Naim, a lawyer and former university dean brought out of retirement in 1983 to run the bank, has shown that he will not be bullied by political pressure from either side.
Aoun has sought to impose his Christian government’s authority on the bank. In December, he closed the only crossing between Christian East and Muslim West Beirut for 10 days after Naim allocated funds to Muslim army units.
Naim responded by providing the equivalent of $1 million to the Muslim side to import flour because Aoun’s blockade choked off supplies from the main warehouses in East Beirut.
Naim has also had to contend with a serious banking crisis.
Run by Depositors
The Al-Mashrek Bank went under in December because of a run by depositors panicked by reports that it was overstretched through hefty investments.
The Central Bank, however, underwrote claims by its non-institutional depositors.
“By law, we were not obliged to do what we did,” Naim explained. “It’s not our duty . . . to aid banks in trouble. But we intervened, not just to help Al-Mashrek, but to protect the banking sector and Lebanese society.”
By Feb. 15, the Central Bank had covered claims for 7 billion Lebanese pounds ($14 million) and the equivalent of $17 million in foreign currencies, Naim said.
Life Savings Not Lost
“But for Naim, I’d have lost my life savings when Al-Mashrek went under,” said Badra, the Sunni businessman.
“I had all my money in Al-Mashrek,” said Ahmad Rabbou, a Muslim vegetable merchant. “When I heard it had collapsed, I felt that 30 years of hard work was lost.
“When Naim announced that the Central Bank would guarantee Al-Mashrek’s deposits, it was like giving life to a dead man.”