A coffee shop owner from a town in rural east Lebanon became a local hero to some this week, after withdrawing $50,000 in cash from his bank account – a move that has become impossible two years into the country’s worst-ever financial meltdown.
But to others Abdallah Assaii, 37, is not a hero but a criminal. He was only able to retrieve his money after holding seven bank employees hostage and is alleged to have sprayed them with petrol and threatened to set them – and himself – alight.
However Mr Assaii is viewed, the incident at a branch of Lebanese bank BBAC in the town of Jeb Jannine, in the Bekaa Valley, on Tuesday, highlights the desperation felt by many Lebanese enduring their country's financial chaos.
Lebanese banks stopped giving dollars to depositors in late 2019 and instead allow withdrawals only in Lebanese pounds – currently at a rate about 65 per cent lower than the market rate.
No one was seriously injured in the incident but lawyers for Mr Assaii's family and the bank disagree on the level of violence he used during negotiations with bank staff and police.
In the absence of formal capital control laws, the bank’s best chance at prosecuting Mr Assaii is to argue that he physically assaulted staff and was ready to carry out threats to kill them, observers say.
His family and friends deny this was the case, describing instead a man with no criminal record, driven to desperation by debt and unfair banking practices, who apologised to his hostages at the end of their four-hour ordeal.
Both sides agree that Mr Assaii surrendered to the police. In the confusion, he handed over the cash to his Venezuelan wife, who he called as he left the bank, his lawyer said.
Mr Assaii started a hunger strike on Thursday, according to his family. His wife is on the run.
Mr Assaii’s controversial actions have been praised by members of his local community.
“Abdallah managed to do what nobody could do in all of Lebanon,” said Abed Nabha, an NGO worker from Mr Assaii’s home town of Kefraya, close to Jeb Jannine.
“He didn’t steal the money. It was his,” he added.
Many recognise themselves in Mr Assai, whose coffee shop was robbed of up to $15,000 just weeks before the incident, and who also owed 200 million Lebanese pounds (about $8,700 at the current market rate) for purchases for a fruit and vegetable stall he operated, according to his family.
The bank had refused his repeated requests for cheques in the week preceding Tuesday's incident, his lawyer claimed.
The Association of Banks of Lebanon denies that banks have started refusing to issue cheques.
Early in 2019, Mr Assai returned to Lebanon from living for a few years in Venezuela, sold land worth $400,000 and used most of it to invest in his businesses, his family said. His children, aged 7 and 4, are currently staying with family members.
His case “matters to every single person, including myself”, said activist Yassine Yassine from Ghazzeh, a town close to Kefraya. “They’re holding everybody’s money.”
No legal framework
In November 2019, Lebanese banks imposed capital controls as dollars dried up. This was never approved by Parliament, and persistent rumours in Lebanese media claim that well-connected clients sent millions of dollars abroad, while Lebanese with more modest deposits saw the value of their savings plummet.
In the absence of parliamentary oversight, the Banque du Liban central bank has issued circulars restricting withdrawals and transfers out of the country from banks, both in Lebanese pounds and US dollars.
A legal source close to BBAC said that Mr Assaii forced bank staff to hand over the cash “in spite of the withdrawal procedures and limits set by the [Banque du Liban] in this time of crisis”.
But some experts argue that no law gives Lebanese banks the right to refuse to pay back an amount of cash equivalent to the client’s currency of deposit.
“Everything that has happened so far are actions from the central bank that have no legal foundation,” said Nasser Saidi, a former Lebanese economy minister and first vice governor of the central bank.
“Courts refuse to sue banks that have been delinquent in payment. The judicial system is no longer independent. It’s part of the political process,” he added.
Economist Sami Nader said he doubted that the bank would be able to press charges against Mr Assaii for withdrawing $50,000 but might focus on his behaviour in the bank.
“The bank is infringing a basic right of the constitution which is private property,” Mr Nader said.
'We are all Abdallah Assaii'
With little legal recourse for their financial woes, feelings of frustration, humiliation and hopelessness are mounting among many Lebanese. Supporters of Mr Assaii gathered after Friday prayers in Jeb Jannine.
“We are asking from the state to release Abdallah Assaii because he is in the right,” local imam Alaa Baalbaki said. “We are all Abdallah Assaii.”
Although Lebanon’s banking sector – once considered a pillar of the local economy – is now highly unpopular, Mr Assaii’s alleged threats of violence against BBAC’s staff sit uncomfortably, even with his supporters.
“It’s not acceptable for everyone to take their rights like he did,” said Sheikh Muhammad Assayah from Kefraya. “But we need to understand the circumstances that pushed Abdallah to do what he did.”
Mr Assaii’s father, Ali, 56, said his son had no choice. “The economic situation is suffocating everyone,” he said.
Citing media reports of suicide over debt, he asked: “Do you want Abdallah to kill himself? Who would he leave his kids with? Me?”
The exact details of what happened in the BBAC bank in Jeb Jannine on Tuesday remain controversial.
A BBAC lawyer claimed Mr Assaii held a gun to the head of one of the bank staff, had explosives in his bag and sprayed petrol on the employees and on the floor, threatening to light a cigarette.
“I’m not against people taking their money, no one is saying that what’s happening is right, but it’s not the branch employees’ fault,” an unnamed BBAC employee who was one of Mr Assaii’s hostages told local news website SBI on Friday.
“If [people] want their rights they should go to the [banks’] main offices and to politicians. They are behind what’s happening in the country,” she said.
The BBAC lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous due to fears for his safety, said the bank and five employees have pressed charges against Mr Assaii for destruction of property, robbery with threats, attempted murder, physical assault and deprivation of freedom.
Mr Assaii’s lawyer, Sharif Sleiman, rejected claims that his client assaulted staff or sprayed petrol, and said that while he had a gun, he kept it in his bag.
“There was no violence at all,” Mr Sleiman said, claiming that only three employees have pressed charges.
Observers said that violence should be expected as Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens. “The inflation tax has been horrendous. I’ve seen nothing like this in history,” said Mr Saidi.
“What’s happening to people is a crime regardless of the contrived legalities that banks or politicians use to try and justify the situation,” said Mike Azar, a debt finance adviser and a former lecturer at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“That banks and government buildings and BDL haven’t been burnt down by mobs yet is kind of a miracle and testament to the incredible patience of Lebanese people.”