Symbolic figure in crisis: Lebanon celebrates violent cash withdrawal

Symbolic figure in crisis: Lebanon celebrates violent cash withdrawal

Armed with a rifle, Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered the Federal Bank branch in the center of the Lebanese capital on Thursday afternoon. He fired three warning shots, took several people hostage and threatened to douse himself with gasoline and set himself on fire if the bank didn’t pay him part of its savings.

He needs the money to pay his father’s hospital bills, Hussein said, according to a client who managed to flee the bank. The kidnapper’s brother also cited this as the motive for the crime. Negotiations with the police continued for several hours before the man finally ended the kidnapping at night and turned himself in to the police. According to the Lebanese news agency NNA, Bank Hussein had promised to pay US$30,000.

The kidnapper Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein at the bank

AP/Hussein Malla After eight hours, Hussein ended the kidnapping

Banks deny access to savings

The sum is only part of the money Hussein had in the bank. His savings are estimated to be around $200,000. But, like almost everyone in Lebanon, the funds have been locked up for more than two years. Since then, the Mediterranean country’s banks have only allowed people to make small payments that are hardly enough to meet the basic necessities of life. About 80 percent of the population is now considered impoverished.

Behind the coercive measures taken by the banks is the worst economic crisis in Lebanon’s history, which has kept the country under control for almost three years. During this period, the national currency lost more than 90% of its value. The Lebanese pound was previously pegged to the dollar. That’s why many people have US currency accounts.

As the crisis continued, the country’s foreign exchange reserves began to run out – which in turn led to the freezing of layoffs by banks. However, most goods and services are only traded in dollars because of the high inflation of the national currency. This makes the situation even worse.

sympathy of the population

News of the kidnapping quickly reached all parts of the country on Thursday. The image of a resister facing a bench, gun in hand, touched many. Video footage shows people spontaneously gathering near the bench. They expressed their solidarity with the kidnapper. According to the daily L’Orient Le Jour, an organization campaigning for the rights of bank customers has also called for protests.

Beirut: Bank robber squeezes money for free

Amid the severe economic crisis, a man held several hostages in the Lebanese capital Beirut for hours. Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein wanted to release the bank’s frozen savings to pay his father’s hospital bills. After hours of negotiations, the bank promised Hussein a partial payment and the hostages were released. Hussein was later arrested. The country has been suffering for almost three years with the worst economic crisis in its history. Large sections of the population fell into poverty.

“Our corrupt system made the poor man do it,” said one woman. One man told the British “Guardian” that many members of the police, who cordoned off a large area of ​​the place where the hostages were taken, also understood what Hussein had done. “Desperate people do desperate things. We are all like him, even the soldiers and police liked him,” said the passerby.

Dependent on remittances from abroad

Indeed, like all public service, the police are also suffering from widespread pay cuts. Their salaries have been cut more than twenty times in the last two and a half years. According to the Guardian report, many of them earn just the equivalent of $70 a month, which is actually no longer a means of livelihood. Many people in Lebanon are only able to survive because they have relatives abroad who transfer money regularly.

The hostage taking was the second such act this year. In January, a man poured gasoline on bank customers and demanded access to their savings. He was also actually able to withdraw the required amount. Given the country’s dramatic situation, it is almost surprising that such acts of desperation do not occur more often.

Explosion disaster as a memorial to the crisis

Very few believe that the situation in the country is improving. Just a few days ago, the catastrophe of the explosion in the port of Beirut marked the second anniversary. When hundreds of tons of ammonium nitrate negligently stored in the port exploded on August 4, 2020, entire districts of Beirut were razed to the ground.

214 people died, another 6,500 were injured and around 300,000 were left homeless. The explosion became a symbol of the crisis in the country and at the same time worsened it. Just on the second anniversary of the devastating explosion, more silos collapsed after a fire in the capital’s port. Relatives of the victims accuse the authorities of systematically covering up their possible joint responsibility for the disaster for years.

In general, confidence in the country’s politics has plummeted. The political elite face accusations of corruption and inaction. Many people in Lebanon blame the country’s leadership for the dramatic economic situation – which they have been experiencing in all areas of life for months. Most families have to survive on just a few hours of electricity a day. The water supply also breaks regularly. Potential international supporters like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are demanding reforms before helping the country. However, the government has so far failed to do so.