BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanese savers, including a retired police officer, attacked at least three banks in the cash-strapped country on Tuesday after banks ended a week-long strike and partially reopened.
As the severe economic crisis in the small Mediterranean country continues to worsen, more and more Lebanese savers are opting to break into banks and forcibly withdraw their trapped savings. Cash-strapped banks in Lebanon have imposed informal restrictions on cash withdrawals. The break-ins reflect growing public anger at banks and authorities that have been trying to reform the country’s corrupt and battered economy.
Three-quarters of the population has been pushed into poverty in what the World Bank describes as one of the worst economic crises in more than a century. Meanwhile, the Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value against the dollar, leaving millions across the country struggling to cope with skyrocketing prices.
Ali al-Sahli, a retired military officer who served in the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, raided the BLC Bank branch in the eastern town of Chtaura, demanding that $24,000 in trapped savings be transferred to his son who owes rent and school fees in Ukraine.
“Count the money before one of you dies,” al-Sahli said in a video he recorded with one hand, wielding a gun with the other.
According to the protest group Depositors Protest, Sahli said he had offered to sell his kidneys to pay for his son after the bank blocked him from transferring money for months. The retired military officer turned to protest groups for help as his son owed several months rent and school fees.
In the video he captured on his phone, al-Sahli brandished a pistol and threatened to shoot if bank employees didn’t comply. Protesters and bystanders from depositors’ groups watched from the outside, as employees worked to calm him down.
Al-Sahli was unable to retrieve any of his money, and security forces arrested him.
Elsewhere, a depositor broke into a Byblos bank branch in the southern city of Tyre. In the northern city of Tripoli, workers from the Kadisha Power Company broke into a local First National Bank branch to protest the bank’s deduction of fees from delayed wages. The Lebanese Army arrived at the scene in Tripoli and patrolled the area.
Some depositor protest groups, including Depositors’ Protest, have supported the break-in and have vowed to continue doing so.
“We are sending a message to the banks that their security measures will not stop depositors because they are struggling,” Moussa Agassi, the depositors protest media coordinator, told The Associated Press. “We’re trying to tell bank owners to try and find a solution, and tougher security doesn’t keep them safe.”
The public praised angry savers, some even hailing them as heroes, most notably Sally Hafez, who stormed a bank branch in Beirut with a fake pistol and a petrol can, taking some $13,000 to finance her23 year old sister’s cancer treatment.
However, the bank condemned the robbery and urged the Lebanese government to provide security personnel.
The Lebanese Banking Association closed for a week in late September after at least seven depositors stormed branches during the month and forcibly took their trapped savings, citing security concerns. The banks partially reopened a handful of branches last week, welcoming only business customers by appointment into their premises.
Meanwhile, Lebanon has been struggling to restructure its financial sector and economy to reach a deal with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout. The International Monetary Fund has criticized Lebanese officials for slow progress.