Lebanon: 'These Are No Ordinary Bank Heists'

Published September 21st, 2022 - 06:08 GMT
People outside a bank in Beirut
Lebanese people outside a bank in Beirut on Friday express their support for a depositor who stormed the bank last week to withdraw her frozen savings. (AFP)

Sali Hafez, Abed Soubra, Bassam Sheikh Hassan, Jawad Slim and Mohammad al Moussawi are no bank robbers, they are ordinary, respectable, hard-working people living in crisis-hit Lebanon. Yet they are only some of the people who are taking desperate measures because the country's economic, financial and political system that is stacked against them.

 

Their situation has become so bad that they have taking to raiding banks in Beirut and elsewhere around the country in a bid to rectify some of their dire needs. The first bank stick-up, if that can be called, happened last January, at the beginning of the New Year, when people around the world are looking for some hope. But not here. Here, the Lebanese crunch has started to bite long ago.

 

Then it increased last August, hiking up in September with five hold-ups, or heists, depending on your point of view, in just one day: People going into banks and demanding money while waving pistols at the employees. But these people, are not thieves, they are not your ordinary Bonnie and Clyde who go around holding up financial institutions for the sake of lining their booties or for a bit of fun.

They go into banks demanding their own money, cash from their own accounts, actions which should be provided and guaranteed by any free liberal society and state. But not here, this is Lebanon. Here, banks – supposedly international financial institutions have put sever restrictions on their customers only allowing them to withdraw $200 a month and these can only be taken out in Lebanese pounds, a lira that has already lost 90 percent of its value. Before 2019, it was begged at 1600 liras to the dollar, today its 38,000 liras for one buck!

 

Lebanon has been reeling under a financial crisis since 2019 – at a time of a popular revolution that did the country no good but squeezed further the livelihood of people. The banks in the country put a limit on daily, weekly and monthly cash withdrawals, a situation that exists till to day and which have led ordinary people to take such extreme measures and revert to hold ups and/or stick ups in a bid to take away their life-time small but needy investments.

The sticks are happening everywhere in downtown Beirut and its neighborhoods, in places like Tariq Jdideh, Aley, Ramlet Al Bayda and Sodco. But they have been known to be happening outside the capital like in Ghazieh in the south of Lebanon.

The situation has become so intolerable for the banks, their staff and mangers, they have just declared a three-day strike, a shutdown of banks around the country because of the deteriorating security situation and the inability of either bank guards and the police and other security apparatuses to protect them. The caretaker Minister of Interior Bassam Mawlawi is holding meetings to tighten security situations around banks but this may not be enough and nobody knows what good will this do.

 

Those who are taking such drastic actions like Hafez, who forced her bank to hand over $13,000 from her own account to take care of her sister who is in need of treatment for cancer, Jawad Salim, an out-of-a-job contractor, who have seven kids to feed or Bassam Hussein who has to pay medical expenses for his father. He took six people as hostages and had $200,000 in his bank account which he couldn't touch.

They are being seen as heroes in the Lebanese street and for standing up to what is their own. These people are not criminal but desperate with much of the time the guns they have brandished in these stick ups turning up to be fake toy guns.

 

And they are getting a lot of social media support. For one thing they are not afraid of telling people what they are doing. In the case of Hafez she live tweeted what she was doing at the bank and in brandishing the gun in her hands. She, like everyone else, needs the money. All these appear to be individual cases but seem to be connected tenuously to an organization in Lebanon that encourages this kind of action. It is called Depositors' Outcry lead by Alaa Khorchid who says that people are in a state of desperation and are taking matters into their own hands.

 

Most of the time the authorities have let the people who resort to such action off and turn a blind eye because they know of the worsening economic situation which has been the worst in many decades. After they have taken their monies, they either surrender themselves to the police and/or the authorities who let them go after a slap wrist. However, some of the judges take a harsher view as in the case of Abdul Rahman Zakaria and Mohammad Ruston who were involved in such financial heists. To make sure the right verdict is produced and the two don't go to prison, people raided Beirut's Palace of Justice in their support.

 

As long as their accounts continue to be "frozen" just to keep the banking system afloat, people will continue to resort to such type of action. In the previous so-called heists, customers managed to get out up till $15,000 or even $20,000 each time and some more, checks are being written which they can cash in other banks at a drastically lower price – known as the "haircut" in local Lebanese parlance. If this happens frequently, from now on, banks would stand at a better chance, if they chance unfreeze these monies in these accounts rather than just being forced to hand cash the barrel of a gun and or under duress.

The Lebanese are hungry as 80 percent of the population – that is 3 million – live below the poverty line according to official international statistics. What this means is that people would want to dip into their saving held in banks  and the indications of the last week or so means that they would do many things to get their stalled cash.

 


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