Lebanon bank hold-ups trigger 'start of a revolution'

Advocacy group that helped Sally Hafez recoup $13,000 by taking hostages at Blom branch is urging others to do the same

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A Lebanese advocacy group on Thursday vowed to orchestrate more bank hold-ups with anyone seeking to unlock their frozen savings from inside the nation’s commercial banks.

The Association of the Outcry of Depositors rose to national prominence on Wednesday when the group admitted to helping Sally Hafez conduct an armed bank raid in which she successfully retrieved $13,000 of her trapped savings to pay for her sister’s cancer treatment.

“They accuse us of organising a premeditated operation,” said head of the group, Alaa Khourchid. “Yes, it was premeditated. And we’ll orchestrate more.”

Accompanied by the activists and waving a toy gun, Ms Hafez, who went later into hiding, stormed a Blom Bank branch in Beirut, locking hostages inside and live-streaming the operation on social media. She told viewers the reason for the hold-up was to pay for her ill sister’s cancer treatment.

A lawyer for the group told The National on Wednesday that the association had been planning with Ms Hafez for the past month, after she approached with the idea out of desperation to help her sister.

Equal parts hostage situation and publicity stunt, the hold-up made her an instant celebrity to the Lebanese public — the woman who fought the banks and won. Ms Hafez is not in police custody and remains on the run.

"Sally Hafez was just the start of the revolution," said Ibrahim Abdullah, a member of the Depositor's Outcry group, which held a press conference on Thursday on the coattails of her success. "It won't end until we get our money."

The incident was not the first, coming a month after Bassam Al Sheikh Hussein took hostages at another Beirut bank, making off with $35,000 of his own money.

In January, Abdallah Assaii made headlines as the first person in Lebanon to hold up a bank to get his own money — he successfully recovered $50,000 dollars. Both men were released within days of their arrest.

Nor was the latest incident the last — only hours after Ms Hafez recouped some savings, Rami Sharafeddein held up a bank in Aley, making off with $30,000 of his own money.

At a press conference on Thursday, the Outcry group encouraged more disenfranchised depositors to conduct similar operations against Lebanon’s banks.

Lebanon’s destitute commercial banks informally imposed their own capital controls after the nation’s financial system collapsed in 2019.

A severe economic crisis, compounded by unsanctioned capital controls, has left much of the population destitute and unable to access the majority of their own savings.

The national currency’s value has plummeted in value by more than 95 per cent and inflation has soared, making life unaffordable and intolerable for many. Meanwhile, the central bank’s remaining dollar reserves have dwindled over the course of three years, as political leaders quibbled over enacting the necessary reforms required for an international bailout.

Legal attempts by depositors to free their savings from savings accounts have so far been thwarted. Banks have closed branches in protest over judicial orders to release money into the hands of rightful owners.

The judiciary itself is often incapacitated and barely operating as it endures various strikes over poor working conditions and the state’s inability to pay adequate salaries.

Advocacy groups such as Depositor’s Outcry maintain they have attempted for three years to free people’s savings through legal means, to no avail.

“Three years — and not a single corrupt minister or political leader or bank owner has been arrested,” the group’s leader said.

“The judiciary goes after the person who steals a motorcycle or a bundle of bread,” Mr Khourchid added, condemning the judiciary’s inability to hold Lebanon’s bankers and leaders — widely blamed for bringing the country to its knees through decades of financial engineering and misrule — to account.

With no sign of Lebanon’s leaders adopting a financial recovery plan or agreeing on reforms, bank hold-ups have become palpable manifestations of the desperation felt in Lebanon.

“If people want to free their deposits, let them take matters into their own hands,” the group’s leader said. "Stop speaking empty words and do it."

Updated: September 16, 2022, 7:38 AM