we explain to you why bank robberies by their own desperate customers have multiplied since January

Seven banks robbed in less than 48 hours. Including five during the single day of Friday, September 16. In Lebanon, these actions are not the work of mafia organizations, but of men and women, with a somewhat particular profile: they are desperate customers, who try to withdraw their own savings within the establishments.

While the country has been plunged into serious economic and financial difficulties since 2019, pushing the banks to impose drastic restrictions on their customers, these robberies arouse the support of a large part of the population, exhausted to assume the colossal losses of the banking sector.

Because anger has been rising for many months in the country. Dn January 26, a 37-year-old man burst into a bank in the Bekaa Valley, in the west of the country, with a gun and a grenade in his hand. After dozing himself in gasoline, he threatened to set himself on fire and thus recovered part of his savings, reported Vice News.

Since 2019 and the start of the historic economic crisis that has paralyzed the country, the banks limit the withdrawals of their customers, eager to recover their savings, in particular in foreign currencies and in particular in dollars. Not only is access to this money limited, due to a lack of liquidity, but these withdrawals can only be made in Lebanese pounds, the national currency, which has lost more than 90% of its value on the market in three years. Thus, these blocked funds are valued in “lolars”a contraction of “lol” and “dollars”: a popular pun that reflects the exasperation of a population of which 80% now lives below the poverty line.

August 11, Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old Lebanese, put this procedure into practice. Ftool and can of gasoline in hand, he had held five Federal Bank employees hostage for six hours in a bank branch in Hamra, a lively district in the west of Beirut, claiming his some 200,000 euros in savings blocked by the establishment. The bank had finally agreed to give him nearly 30,000 euros, according to local media.

Interviewed a few days later by Vice News, at home, the hostage taker explained that he needed this money to support his family, including his sick father. “I felt strangled”, he said, after trying to recover the sum by conventional means. Hence his threat. “I said to the manager: ‘I can’t get my money back, I’m going to come and set the agency on fire’.

This exasperation is reflected in the speech of Sali Hafez, a 28-year-old interior designer, ready to do anything to access her funds. And this, in order to pay for the treatment that his sister, Nancy, who is sick with cancer, must benefit from. Two days ago, I went to see the manager of the bank, and I said to him: ‘Time is slipping away from us. My sister is sick, she is going to die. He replied that he could only give me 200 dollars”she explained on Wednesday in a message broadcast a few hours after bursting into a Blom Bank branch in the Sodeco district, in Beirut, and relayed here by Middle East Eye.

His gesture, carried out with a dummy weapon, allowed him to walk away with the equivalent of 13,000 dollars, a tiny part of the cost of the treatment his sister needs – “about 50,000” dollars every two weeks – she told Release.

“People commit suicide. I tell them: don’t turn your gun on yourself. Go get your money, even if you have to lose your life”she told Lebanese television, in a statement quoted by the Financial Times. Engaged in the protest movement against a political class deemed corrupt and incompetent, she confided to franceinfo, in November 2021: “We are slowly dying. They are killing us little by little.”

The video of his action went viral on social media, and his call was heard across the country. On Friday, a man thus recovered some 19,000 dollars in cash, before surrendering to the police in Ghaziyeh, southeast of Saida, the main city in the south of the country. According to a local television channel quoted by AFP, his weapon was dummy. In Chhim, still in the south, a retired soldier held six people hostage in a branch of BankMed, obtaining 25,000 dollars, according to an association of savers, also quoted by the news agency.

Lebanon: the robberies of desperate inhabitants follow one another

That same day, in the capital, three men carried out robberies aimed at obtaining their own money, including one with a toy weapon.

Faced with the multiplication of these incidents, the Minister of the Interior, Bassam Mawlawi, held an emergency meeting on Friday “to take the necessary security measures”. “To claim your rights in this way (…) can harm the system and cause the rest of the savers to lose their rights”he warned, after this meeting.

However, around the banks concerned, many activists gathered to support his initiatives. Among them was Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, the author of the action carried out in August.

Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old Lebanese who obtained part of these savings by carrying out a hostage-taking in August, witnesses, in the crowd, a similar action, carried out Friday, September 16 in a bank from the district of Tarik Jdide, in Beirut.   (IBRAHIM AMRO / AFP)

The authors of these actions also benefit from the support of part of the population, noted L’Orient le Jour. “It’s their right, it’s their money (…) I know that if everyone starts doing this, the banks will have to go out of business, for lack of money. But individually, people don’t care, Sali had to save his sister with cancer”, commented a fifty-year-old in the pages of the French-speaking daily. Another Lebanese testified there his satisfaction at seeing the hostage takers leave with several thousand dollars: “I don’t care about this idea of ​​chaos, it’s their own money that they withdraw, and then they are harmless”.

Does the Lebanese justice agree? Among the robbers on Friday, several of them found themselves, at the end of their action, in the hands of the police. Sali Hafez, she is on the run, writes The Financial Times. Quoted by the British daily, the lawyer Fouad Debs, co-founder of the main association of Lebanese savers, also testifies to his support for the activists. “None of them intend to harm anyone, especially those who use a toy weapon,” he explained. “So the highest penalty should be a fine of 200,000 Lebanese pounds, the equivalent of $5 at black market rates.”

In addition, in August, the Lebanese justice system had given up prosecuting Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein and a judge had therefore ordered his release after the bank dropped the charges against him, reported the official ANI agency.

In response to this wave of robberies, the Association of Banks of Lebanon (ABL) ordered the closure of all branches for three days next week. But the activists have already promised that this type of operation would multiply.

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