It’s a trip to the land of the absurd. Where men and women, taken by the throat, have no choice but to rob their own bank to recover their money. Where lawyers become accomplices to support their clients, in front of delighted television cameras. Lebanon had a crazy week with no less than seven robberies between September 14 and 16.
Plunged into an unprecedented political and economic crisis, since the end of 2019 the Lebanese have been subjected to drastic banking restrictions on their deposits, imposed unilaterally and illegally by their banks. So, when pleas at the counter to withdraw a few dollars have no effect, some do not hesitate to disembark armed and take employees and customers hostage. In an instant, they become the “heroes” of the day, for having done what many dream of doing but do not dare.
Sali Hafez, 28, has reopened the floodgates of these serial robberies which started last January. Robber? “She recovered her stolen money from her bank, how does that make her an outlaw?” retorts Jad, a computer scientist, who assures that he “would have done the same”. On September 14 in the morning, Sali enters, with his lawyer and activists, the Blom Bank located in Sodeco, a district of Beirut, to claim “what is rightfully his”. Armed with a pistol, which turns out to be a child’s toy, and gasoline with which she sprinkles the premises, she demands the withdrawal of all of her account, that is to say 20,000 dollars, and threatens to set herself on fire. “I need my money to pay for the care of my sister who is dying of cancer,” she says.
Public opinion takes a liking to this passionaria with the face of an angel who leaves the bank with more than 13,000 dollars and is today on the run. “There will be others,” warned Rami Ollaik, Sali Hafez’s lawyer and founder of the Mouttahidoun alliance, which defends Lebanese depositors against banks. 48 hours later, no fewer than five such attacks have been recorded across the country.
On September 16, five men stormed their bank to claim their dollars. Inside one of them, Abed Soubra, a tradesman and father of 4 children, held the director of the Blom Bank in Tarik Jdide, a Sunni district of Beirut. “It’s my right, I’m not a thug, but an honest entrepreneur. I have more than 270,000 dollars in my account obtained by the sweat of my brow”, he tells L’Express. After more than 8 hours of negotiations, and despite the intervention on the scene of a former Minister of Justice, the bank did not give in and the man returned home empty-handed. The other four, on the other hand, were able to recover from their accounts, from different banks, sums ranging from 15,000 to 20,000 dollars.
An unprecedented puzzle for the authorities
The Association of Lebanese Banks announced a full three-day shutdown to assess the situation. Since the robberies have multiplied, Rami comes every morning backwards to the bank where he works. “We understand these people, we are living in exactly the same situation as them. But between the daily insults and the fear that an armed guy will show up, my colleagues and I are in a permanent state of stress”, says this employee.
All these attacks did not cause casualties, but became an unprecedented headache for the Lebanese justice system. How to consider these criminally reprehensible actions when the banks, in violation, are not worried? While depositors are sometimes arrested, the authorities end up releasing them and a compromise is generally reached with the banks, whose image has only deteriorated in recent years. “To prevent this from happening, we process the files of depositors who have urgent hospital costs, these are humanitarian cases”, confides, on condition of anonymity, the CEO of a Lebanese bank who says he is “worried that the next robbery goes wrong.”
Before the crisis, the amount of dollar deposits recorded in Lebanese banks amounted to 100 billion dollars, but these actually held only 2 billion dollars. It is estimated that only $400 million is currently stored in bank vaults. “This type of action only benefits those who arrive armed, to the detriment of others, because we don’t have enough cash,” says the banker. Especially since the “judicial robberies”, these trials launched abroad by wealthy depositors, are increasing. Last August, British justice sentenced a Lebanese bank to pay nearly $8 million to a Syrian-British national.