Lebanon's Economic Crisis Armed Cash Withdrawals Spread amid Growing Desperation
Bassam Hussein’s last cash withdrawal for the time being required rather unusual preparations. He shelled out almost half a million Lebanese pounds for 15 liters of gasoline, which he then filled into small bottles. He already had a shotgun and ammunition at home. The 42-year-old fitness trainer took it all with him on the morning of August 11 to his branch of the Federal Bank in Beirut’s central quarter of Hamra. He waited a few minutes outside the bank before marching inside with his equipment past frightened passersby. With one hand on the trigger and using the other to splatter gasoline onto the tables, he yelled: "Either I’ll get my money, or I’ll die trying!"
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 47/2022 (November 19th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
The response from the branch manager: "OK, OK Bassam. You’ll get the $400 this month." With his disheveled hair, shoulder-length beard and tank-top, Hussein looked the part of a bank robber. Just that Hussein wasn’t trying to rob a bank. He was only trying to withdraw money from his own bank account. "You think I’m stupid?" he barked at the branch manager. "I want it all, my entire savings of $210,000" – money that mostly came from selling his parents' home. The man from the bank responded that they no longer had any dollars on site, just Lebanese pounds. "We’ll have to procure the money," he said, adding that it would take some time. "Then we’re going to have a long night," Bassam Hussein fired back.
"I might have hit him as well," Hussein says, relating the story several weeks later in his sparsely furnished suburban home with a view of the sea and the airport runway. "In retrospect, I’m sorry about that. But he had been stringing me along for weeks and lying to me, and he hadn’t even paid out the $400 per month that we were still allowed to withdraw. That would have been enough for me. And I needed the money for medical care for my father." Hussein’s father has late-stage Alzheimer’s.
"Don't Give Up!"
Bassam Hussein walked into the bank at 8:30 a.m. Soon thereafter, the police and the military took up positions outside. A female customer inside the bank collapsed and was evacuated, whereupon Hussein announced that everyone could leave except for the branch manager. Two other employees, though, decided to stay, as did one customer. "He said there was 6 million pounds frozen in his account and he wanted to join me to also get his money out," Hussein recalls.
A BLOM BANK branch in Beirut.Foto: Emilie Madi / REUTERS
But the dollars didn’t arrive. Hours went by until, at 2 p.m., the bank offered $5,000. What did Hussein do? "I tried to break a window with the butt of my gun, but it didn’t work. It was reinforced glass." Hussein was furious. As video footage from the security cameras shows, he again began pouring out gasoline and pointed his shotgun, which he had bought for hunting, at both himself and at others. As a special tactical unit gathered outside in preparation for storming the branch, at least that’s what they claimed later, a growing group of onlookers began chanting encouragement to Hussein through a megaphone: "Don’t give up! Fight! We are with you!” The popular restaurant T-Marbouta got in touch to ask if it could send warm meals for all those inside the bank.
Bassam Hussein, bank customer
As they munched on shawarma sandwiches, garlic potatoes and salad amid the stench of gasoline, new offers from bank management arrived by the hour: $10,000, $15,000, $20,000. Evening fell. At around 6:30 p.m., a negotiator offered $35,000 if Hussein would go home immediately, adding in a whisper: "Take it! Otherwise, they’ll storm the building." Bassam Hussein cursed the bank, pointed the gun at himself – and accepted. Only at that moment, he says, did he fully realize how close his maneuver had come to ending in a bloodbath. "Yeah, it was really quite dangerous," he says today in a calm voice. "On the other hand, I had to do it." As soon as his brother arrived home safely with the $35,000, he released his final hostage, the branch manager, and gave himself up.
The Real Criminals
Bassam Hussein wasn’t the first person in Lebanon to try to access their savings in such a manner, and he certainly wasn’t the last. In January, a shop owner from the Beqaa Valley threatened to set himself and the bank branch on fire after the manager refused to issue him a check over the allowed amount – a check that he only could have paid into a different blocked account or exchanged on the black market for a fifth of its actual value. In September, an interior designer in Beirut stormed her bank with a toy pistol in an attempt to access money to pay for the cancer treatment her sister needed. In early November, a disabled retiree held up his bank for the second time within just a couple of weeks to withdraw money for his son’s studies, after he was disarmed during his initial attempt.
The skyline of BeirutFoto: Jacob Russell / DER SPIEGEL
There are close to 20 further cases that either failed or weren't reported on. Miraculously, nobody has thus far been hurt. The perpetrators, meanwhile, have become heroes in the public imagination. DER SPIEGEL met with four of the best-known armed bank depositors. They all emphasize that, far from being criminals, they are actually victims who were merely trying to recover their own money they had previously deposited.
Ever since the country’s criminal financial Ponzi scheme collapsed in October 2019, the elite made up of former warlords, religious leaders and central bank head Riad Salameh – once hailed as a finance magician – has blocked all attempts to save the country from sliding even further into misery. They were the ones who created the system in the first place, according to which banks attracted depositors with promises of 10-percent interest rates or higher, lent the government hard currency at rates just as high, and artificially fixed the exchange rate since 1997 at the level of 1,500:1. And they kept the system in place until sovereign debt reached record-high levels, investor trust evaporated and the inflow of new deposits was no longer sufficient. The bubble burst.
These days, the value of the Lebanese pound has plunged to just 4 percent of its pre-crisis level. Since 2019, banks have frozen depositor assets and are only allowing tiny withdrawals – and usually only in pounds at obsolete exchange rates, which means that each payout is just a fraction of its dollar value.
Lebanon's "Deliberate Depression"
But Lebanese leaders continue to reject reforms and refuse to have the central bank audited, and they are also intent on undermining negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and other governments. Switzerland, France and Germany have all launched investigations against Salameh after hundreds of millions of dollars were wired from central bank accounts to a shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands in which Salameh’s brother is thought to be involved. When a courageous Lebanese judge ordered the office of that brother to be searched, the country’s prime minister stepped in personally to halt the investigation. Early this year, the World Bank, not generally known for hyperbole, scathingly pronounced: "Lebanon’s deliberate depression is orchestrated by the country’s elite that has long captured the state and lived off its economic rents."
One might think that such a situation would provide sufficient cause for a rapidly impoverished population to overthrow their leaders. But the question of power has thus far stymied any such efforts. Even as the elite operates like a cartel in collectively plundering the country, they have successfully ensured that their followers remain divided. Lebanon has more than a dozen confessional groups, all of which distrust each other – and the fear of another civil war is overshadowing everything. It is a diabolically perfect system for ruining the country and skimming off its wealth.
Sally Hafiz, an interior designer who wanted to pay for her sister's cancer treatment: "We can no longer allow everything to be taken from us."Foto: Mohamed Azakir / REUTERS
"I don’t want chaos or anarchy," says Sally Hafiz, who walked into her branch of BLOM BANK in central Beirut in September wielding a toy pistol belonging to her nephew. For months, she had been begging in vain for the branch manager to release money from her account so she could pay for her sister, who is suffering from cancer, to receive medical treatment. All healthcare procedures in Lebanon must be paid for immediately in dollars, with patients responsible for purchasing medications, even for chemotherapy, in advance. Many pharmacies have secured their front windows with steel grills and only distribute medicines through an opening. "We have $100,000 in our account and need $20,000 for the operation. The bank offered $50. When my sister wrote in her will that I should take care of raising her young daughter, I had to do something.”
A Cheering Crowd Shouting Support
Wearing black slippers decorated with white, plastic pearls, the interior designer is sitting in a friend’s office as she calmly relates her story: "I went to the bank with three friends, a bottle full of water with a bit of gasoline and the toy pistol. They had plenty of dollars there. I’m sorry if I frightened people, but we can no longer allow everything to be taken from us."
Within minutes, a cheering crowd had assembled in front of the BLOM BANK branch, including Bassam Hussein, who had since been released. He says he hurried over to offer his "moral support." Inside, bank employees gave Sally Hafiz $14,000 and handed her a withdrawal slip before she fled into the chaos outside. Even as the police were still searching for her, she was on live television, telling the private broadcaster New TV that she wasn’t the criminal because it's the political class that is robbing the country. "Why are so few doing anything?" she asked. She says she has never heard of Bertolt Brecht, but is quite fond of his legendary query from the "Threepenny Opera": "What is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?" She asks: "Has he been here?"
The series of armed cash withdrawals began with shop owner Abdallah al-Saii from the idyllic wine town of Kefraya, a man who spent half his life in Venezuela and Colombia before returning to Lebanon. The manager of his bank, he says, kept coming up with new reasons for why she simply couldn’t allow him to withdraw his money. "At some point, all my savings had simply vanished. Plus, I was indebted to a produce wholesaler and had already invested in the construction of a carwash."
Led to the Station Like a Hero
So he walked into the BBAC bank in the neighboring town of Joub Jannine, where everyone knew him, greeted the employees and began pouring out the gasoline he had brought with him. Holding up his lighter, he told the bank manager that he wanted to withdraw the $50,000 in cash from his account that he had previously not been allowed to withdraw as a check. "No problem. We’ll issue you a check right away," the deputy manager said. "To late," al-Saii responded. "Fifty thousand, otherwise I’ll light everything on fire."
Abdallah al-Saii forceably withdrew $50,000 from his bank in Joub Jannine. He was released without charges after 17 days.Foto: Jacob Russell / DER SPIEGEL
As al-Saii exhaled small puffs of smoke from the electronic cigarette he concealed behind the hand in front of his face, the deputy manager called the police. "Do something! He’s gone completely crazy! He’s poured gasoline everywhere and now he’s even smoking!" Al-Saii received his $50,000, insisting on receiving a withdrawal slip and having the money booked from his account. Then, amid the chaos, he managed to hand the money to his wife, who was able to leave the bank unchallenged. He then turned himself in. And was respectfully led to the station by the police. "You are a hero," he recalls one of the officers telling him, while another kept apologizing for taking him to jail. "I swear to God, if I weren’t wearing this uniform, I would never put handcuffs on you!"
Several demonstrations were held on his behalf and the local imam also praised him during Friday prayers. And after 17 days, Abdallah al-Saii was released without charges. He had to pay bail of 200,000 Lebanese pounds, worth $10 at the time. Now, it’s worth just $5.
In none of the cases of armed withdrawal has the state elected to prosecute. When Sally Hafiz appeared in court, the judge allowed her to go free after just 10 minutes for the equivalent of $25. As she was leaving, one of the judge’s associates smiled at her and said: "I also still have money in the bank. If you get it out, I’ll give half of it to you." Bassam Hussein was congratulated by the commanding officer of the police unit that had been preparing to storm the bank. "You did the right thing." He too was released after just five days with no charges being filed.
"What Else Can We Do?"
Every policeman in the country, every judge and every public prosecutor also has a bank account, and their salaries, too, have shrunken to the equivalent of a tank of gas. Everyone completely understands the motives behind the armed withdrawals. And nobody is interested in publicly condemning them: The banks have remained silent and even Economy Minister Amin Salam expressed sympathy for Sally Hafiz in comments to the BBC. Lebanon is no dictatorship. In a situation where everyone is afraid of everyone else, those in power are also wary of plunging the helpless into complete desperation.
The Lebanese obviously are unable to overthrow the system of their broken state. But they can reduce it to the absurd. After each attack, the banks close for a few days, then reopen and the next armed withdrawal takes place. "Nobody dares to punish these individuals," says lawyer Fouad Debs, who has joined other lawyers in founding the Union of Depositors, which represents thousands of people. "These aren’t bank robbers, they are taking the law into their own hands. The means they are using, they are minor infractions. We have to bring those to justice who have put us in this position." As he speaks in the dignified office of the law firm his father founded, the power suddenly goes out. In the semidarkness, he continues speaking: "We need a thorough audit, a fair restructuring of the banks, of the entire state." He pauses. "We’re asking for the impossible, I know. But what else can we do?"
When Bassam Hussein was allowed to leave the courtroom, his telephone was returned to him out of a box that also contained his shotgun. He asked if he could also have his weapon back. "You know," the police officer responded, "it is now known to the police. You would have to register it." Given the state of Lebanese bureaucracy though, the police officer continued, according to Hussein’s recollections, that could take several months, if not years. It would also cost at least $500 and he would need a lawyer. "Save yourself the trouble," was the policeman’s friendly advice. "Buy yourself a new one on the black market."