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'Depositor heists' force bank closures in Lebanon

September 16, 2022

Five banks were stormed by desperate depositors in Lebanon Friday making it seven heists this week alone. Those "liberating" their money have been greeted as heroes. Banks are now regrouping.

People, some with cameras, gathered outside a bank being robbed in Beirut
Those 'liberating' their savings are seen as heroes by the public, corrupt banks, say supporters, are the real thievesImage: Razane Salman/DW

Five banks in Lebanon were the target of "depositor heists" Friday, bringing the week's total to seven. Now, banks in the debt-ridden country have decided to close their doors for three days, beginning Monday, to regroup, according to the Association of Banks in Lebanon.

Friday saw repeats of events that took place on Wednesday, when a woman filmed herself holding up her Beirut bank, armed with a toy pistol.

Lebanon has been caught in an economic black hole for three years as its currency has plummeted and banks tightened withdrawal restrictions on customer accounts.

Reports about the motivation of individuals desperate to gain access to their hard-earned savings to spend on things like cancer treatment, have garnered broad public support. "The thieves are the banks, the government and all the rich people protecting them," said one Beirut resident referring to the Wednesday holdup.

Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi convened an emergency meeting to address the situation late Friday. He said of the heists: "Reclaiming rights in this way... can break the system and cause the rest of the depositors lose their rights."

Lebanon's political and economic crises lead to desperation

As the country's political and economic crises endure — fueling the further spiral of devaluation, poverty and unemployment — citizens are powerless as banks help senior elected officials shuffle fortunes out of the country.

Neither has the country been able to meet the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF); or, as recently, pass the 2022 budget, the reforms of which would unlock billions in foreign funds.

Parliament will again take up the matter of the budget on September 26, after Friday's session was abandoned when several members walked out of the chamber.

Frustrated over corruption and inaction, the public can relate to desperate individuals with no criminal records resorting to extreme means to get what is theirs.

"We call on every depositor who refuses injustice, oppression and theft to support any depositor who asks for what is rightfully theirs," said one member of the Association of Depositors in Lebanon.

Police seem to be looking at the acts with a sense of leniency thus far, and despite several "robberies" involving hostage taking, no one has been hurt in any of the incidents — which instead tend to attract throngs of supporters.

Should the banks fail to come up with an adequate plan for thwarting such incidents in the future, observers say the tense situation could worsen, further destabilizing an already dysfunctional government.

Three-quarters of Lebanese live in poverty

Lebanon defaulted on its debt for the first time in March 2020, which was then $90 billion (€89.97) — 170% of the gross domestic product.

The crisis has only worsened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a massive blast at a fertilizer storage facility in the heart of Beirut that killed more than 200 people and caused billions in damage in 2020.

The World Bank has described the situation, in which three-quarters of the population now live in poverty, as one of the worst economic crises in the world.

At a Thursday news conference, a protest group calling itself Depositors' Outcry told reporters there would be more hold-ups — "This is a battle to liberate deposits," the group said.

js/kb (AFP, AP)