“I cannot see myself leaving the ship in the middle of a storm," said Alain Bifani to "Le Commerce du Levant" a few weeks ago. In office since 2000, the director general of the Finance Ministry ended up throwing in the towel. The official, who was involved in the development of the reform plan and negotiations with the IMF, tendered his resignation on June 29. Reread his portrait, which was published in early June before his resignation.
For the past few weeks, Alain Bifani, the director general of the Finance Ministry, has been through the worst turmoil. This former student of the French preparatory classes - the "moles" of the prestigious Lycée Louis-le-Grand - is said to have failed to provide exact estimates of what it would cost the Treasury when the public sector's scales of ranks and salaries were upgraded in 2017. At the time, his services estimated the scales at $800 million to $1.2 billion per year. But it was a fatal error, his critics say, since this salary upgrade for civil servants amounts to $2.3 billion annually. In a context of economic crisis, it is a mess.
"The problem is not related to simulations," said Bifani, who refuses to play scapegoat. "The figures were very accurate. What could not be taken into account were the gifts granted to the sector after parliamentary negotiations about the matter: the addition of Article 18 for pensions, the addition of additional ranks, the maintenance of the early retirement mechanism for military personnel..."
As if that was not enough, the former engineer, who graduated from the Paris School of Business Studies, is accused of failing to provide the government with the "right figures" on public debt and the central bank's losses, hence, weakening the government in its delicate negotiation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). "The figures in the plan are impeccable. They were confirmed by the IMF, which praised them for their seriousness and accuracy. I understand that they are alarming, but for our credibility with international organizations and Lebanon's creditors, it was necessary to have the right diagnosis. Without that, it would have been impossible to start the negotiations."
With the crisis worsenen, the attacks became more personal. Online media accused his wife of setting aside millions of dollars in France and Switzerland, thanks to selling to a Holcom Group subsidiary a majority of the shares of the pharmaceutical distribution company, MediLife, which she created 22 years earlier. To this personal attack, Bifani has direct answers: he does not dispute the transaction, which is true, but recalls that it was completed three years ago and that he did not benefit from it at all. "Enough justifications. Let the thugs who have something to say go to court; I'm waiting for them. And let those behind these rumors accept, like me and my family, the full audit of our assets...," said the man who filed a criminal complaint.
A video, posted on social media, even accused him of wanting to dismantle the banking system and sell it to foreign companies; and in return, he would be rewarded.
An Ambiguous Character
It is an understatement to say that Bifani is a controversial character. There are those who see him as an exemplary senior official. "Alain Bifani is one of the most honest and dedicated of the great clerks of the state!" said Riad Tabet, a former advisor to the finance minister, on Twitter. Others are more realistic."You do not run the Finance Ministry if you are a sensitive soul. But that does not mean he has compromised his ideals," said an academic who works with him.
One of his teenage friends even thanked him for his management of the ministry."He took countless blows; he had to face appalling constraints. What would have happened if it had not been him in this post?"
Others, however, point to his ambiguity. "I have often heard him in small committees denouncing corruption and state dysfunction. But in fact, what did he do to make a difference?" one journalist asked. And silence means consent. "Whether he likes it or not, he was one of the most permanent figures in the state," one observer said. "It is normal that his personality is questioned. After all, we do the same concerning Riad Salameh."
That is also what Salameh has suggested. In his last press conference on the abuses of Banque du Liban (BDL) accounts, the governor stressed the responsibility of BDL's central council, of which the Finance Ministry's director general is a member."Nothing was hidden," he said.
Once again, it is too much for the senior official. "The central bank's spending is not the responsibility of the council. The Currency and Credit Code is very clear in this respect. We have also never discussed - let alone validated - the financial engineering applied since 2015. As for the BDL gap, it is the auditors who are responsible for validating the accounts. Council members receive the certified audit report, as they do anywhere else in the world," he said.
The director general does not like the 3,000 civil servants he heads to be treated as scapegoats. Nor should they be questioned about their integrity. "I have always been keen to upgrade the administration. I know that the Lebanese consider it corrupt and ineffective. It often is. But there are always men and women with remarkable dedication." If he gets upset, it is due to the fact that public opinion also has a wrong perception of the public administration and its margins of autonomy vis-à-vis political power. "
They are stifled by the scope of ministerial action," he said. "Political control is the big culprit."In theory, the director general leads the administration. However, since the New Republic, ministers have become super powerful, without any checks and balances. If the minister in charge wants to overturn or revoke one of the director general's decisions, nothing and no one will prevent it," he explained. How has he worked in these conditions? How has he lasted 20 years? "The first secret to longevity is stubbornness," he said laughingly.
"Basically, you can choose to always do what a minister demands. It is the easiest solution. If you are quiet, no one will question your presence. You can also become the protege of a politician, who protects you. But that means you are moving into the political field, which for the administration is catastrophic. Finally, you can be your minister's right-hand man." For the director general, the latter is the only acceptable case. However, political tutelage must go in this direction.
In his 20-year career, Bifani has known such praise only on rare occasions, especially when he took office in 2000 and formed a balanced tandem with the economist Georges Corm, appointed as finance minister by Prime Minister Salim Hoss. This also seems to be the case today with Ghazi Wazni, Nabih Berri's former economic adviser and a newcomer to the political scene." It is his moment of glory," said laughingly one of his friends.
The director general's fingerprints, it is true, are on the minister's papers, whose crisis exit plan is based on the work of the ministry's teams. Bifani, who was asked to present the plan to the national dialogue table, refused to do so, arguing that that was not his role. But that does not stop him from defending the plan.
"It is a first step. It includes at least two important elements: it is first and foremost the first time that a serious and precise financial diagnosis is made in a comprehensive manner. Until then, we were in denial. Then, it established a serious basis for negotiation, retained by the IMF in its negotiations with Lebanon," Bifani said. It remains to be seen whether this affair will go beyond negotiations.
Officially, Bifani does not comment on his relations with the ministers, but Fouad Siniora, his pet peeve, is an exception. Between the two, it is a real trench warfare. When the former finance minister became prime minister, he reportedly called on the Council of Ministers for Bifani's head."He was close to get it," an informed source said.
Bifani knows how to survive in a hostile environment. The return of Siniora to the Finance Ministry, after Rafik Hariri's victory in the 2000 elections, marked the beginning of a very long desert to cross for Bifani. "He positioned himself as an 'opponent from within': the last to stand up to the 'machine,'" said one consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In his day-to-day work, this meant that he was doomed to the margins. "There are, however, levers to be used: we go before the parliamentary committees to give our point of view... We send our advice to the Council of Ministers even when we know that it will not be accepted… We call on international institutions, bilateral agreements... Thanks to a great deal of perseverance, I was able to repatriate the directorate of public debt within the ministry (formerly under the responsibility of the central bank and external audit firms) and to build the department of macroeconomic studies; these are two entities that are now working very well." Moreover, even when reduced to a minimum, his margin of maneuver makes the difference. As in 2018, when his ministry reconstructed all public accounts between 1993 and 2017, after years of erratic accounting, or even possible financial wrongdoing. The regularization of public accounts should allow the Court of Audit to validate them, something that has not been achieved since 1993.
“You cannot imagine the pressures (we) faced to not reconstruct the accounts... But thanks to the work of my teams, we have regained a certain accounting normality as well as transparency, which is absolutely necessary," the director general assured.
But this issue revives the legendary animosity between the director general and his former minister. Feeling targeted (a large part of the period covered concerns, it is true, his mandates), Siniora shouted conspiracy and pointed out Hezbollah, alluding that the director general of the Finance Ministry is its henchman.
For the director general, there was no question of letting himself be pushed around: he called at the time a press conference - unprecedented by someone in his position - to defend the record of his teams and his tainted honor. Allies "Even if he denies it, Bifani is basically a political player," one academic said."He would not have survived for 20 years at the head of one of the most exposed posts of the republic without having learned to maneuver within the political scene.
"When he became director general of the Finance Ministry in 2000, he already knew how to navigate tumultuous waters. His first-class figure was spotted in 1998 in Beirut's municipal elections on the "anti-system" list, that is, at the time, anti-Hariri. He assured that he has not benefited from any special favors. "I did not make any visits; I did not shake any hands," he said with a smile. He did not meet the president of the republic until after his appointment. The young Bifani shows it is true that he has a good profile.
After completing his studies in Paris, he was recruited by Arthur Andersen, one of the largest financial audit and consulting firms. On his return to Beirut a few years later, he still donned the banker's costume: first at ABN Amro, where he left the memory of someone "competent and efficient," as a former director recalls, and then at Thomson Financial Bankwatch.
In addition, he benefits from a loyal ally: Elias Murr, with whom he worked in the private sector a few years earlier, when he set up his own strategy and finance consulting firm. The son-in-law of the then-president of the republic, Emile Lahoud, the son of former minister Michel Murr, pushed his CV to the top of the state.
"I was seen as close to General Michel Aoun, but it was President Emile Lahoud who signed my appointment," he argued as if the proven antagonism between these two personalities was enough to keep his honor immaculate.
With the "General," the bond is personal, almost "emotional" to the point that some suspect a family history. "But there is no family ties between us." In the ministerial team of Hoss, who led the country at the time of agreement on Bifani's candidacy, his technocratic skills persuaded the then-finance minister, Corm, that the 31-year-old would be the man for the job."He had a strong technical skill and mastered his files very well," recalls Corm.
Did he know what awaited him? He saw himself heading the Finance Ministry for no more than four to five years."But everything is extremely slow in Lebanon," he said, as if he only realized, just now, that 20 years have passed. "The recomposition of public and financial accounts took 10 years of my life. The negotiation of the new standard for the automatic exchange of tax information with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) counts for nine years and it is not completely over. Tax restructuring, many years too... Nevertheless, I want to believe that we have restored some of its lost legitimacy to the Lebanese administration.
"To those who see a meager record, the senior official defends himself by saying he chooses his fights. What about corruption? It is impossible to fight it in the absence of reform under the political tutelage which is imposed on the administration. The end of bank secrecy? If he is campaigning for its lifting, he does not have the means to make it pass. Tax reform? It is ready, but only politics can carry it on... This failing, he sees the adoption of the new standard of automatic exchange of tax information, negotiated with the OECD, as a real success.
"It is a real transparency mechanism. It is one of the most difficult projects I have ever implemented as there have been so many pressures and delaying measures. A majority of the establishment was firmly committed to derail the project. But today, Lebanon has no choice: we will be ostracized by nations if we do not sign." The timing is perfect: the (Common Reporting Standard) CRS standard could be used to recover ill-gotten assets and money transferred abroad in the aftermath of the October 17 protests.
After twenty years in the administration, Bifani is still there [Ed: this article was written besore his resignation] ."Before the protest movement in October 2019 and the start of the economic crisis, I thought of taking three months off and finishing my thesis... I also had a book in the pipeline... But I cannot see myself leaving the ship in the middle of a storm." The man assures that he does not want to continue for too long years. He, however, emphasized that he has no preconceived ideas about a possible future function.
Not even the head of the BDL? A Maronite, his name had been mentioned a few years ago when Salameh's fifth term seemed to be at stake."He is a possible candidate. Perhaps not the most obvious, but he would be in his place," said his teenage friend.
"No, no, no," replies Bifani. "There is no deadline. Let us stop always wanting to find narrow motivations for every public engagement. Anyway, you would have to be crazy to dream about it right now, don't you think so?"