'It's our right': Lebanese cheer flurry of bank heists as depositors demand their own money back

'It's our right': Lebanese cheer flurry of bank heists as depositors demand their own money back
At least five banks were held up across Lebanon on Friday as Lebanese depositors go to extreme lengths to get their money back.
3 min read
16 September, 2022
Men stand in front of a Blom Bank in Beirut as a man holds up the bank to return his savings (TNA - William Christou)

Five separate banks were held up in Beirut on Friday as depositors attempted to repossess their money from a frozen financial system, three years into the crisis which has paralysed the country's economy.

Lebanon's banks froze accounts in 2019 after the country's financial meltdown, effectively trapping millions of Lebanese's savings in the financial system. Parliament has long delayed passing a financial rescue plan or a capital control law which would allow depositors to potentially recoup some of their losses.

Bank heists continued throughout Friday, one after the other, with one depositor using a toy gun and another a pellet gun to compel bank staff to unfreeze some of their savings. The day’s hold-ups came on the back of three previous successful heists over the last month - two of which were done in order to secure money for family members' medical treatment.

Crowds gathered in front of Blom Bank in the working-class neighbourhood of Tareeq Jadeedeh, as Abed Soubra negotiated with staff inside hours after holding up the bank at gunpoint.

"We are with everyone who goes out to get his rights. This is his right and he will get it, whether today or tomorrow, or by force," Hassan Rawas, a 39-year-old resident of Tareeq Jadeedah, told The New Arab in front of Blom Bank.

Another woman, who asked not to be named, said that she lost 25-years worth of savings due to the financial crisis. "I won't go to work anymore, there's no point," the woman who worked as an architect said.

Lebanese officials called for calm on Friday afternoon. Interior Minister Bassam Malawi said: "Depositors cannot get their rights in this way, because they can get their rights within the legal framework… otherwise the rest of the depositors will lose their rights."

The Association of Lebanese Banks (ABL) announced that they will close banks for the first three days of next week "in condemnation and denunciation of what happened" and to ensure the safety of banking staff.

Civil society members insist that the current situation is a result of Lebanese depositors being at their wits' ends, having exhausted all other methods to recover their money.

"Such acts are very predictable because depositors have nothing to lose anymore. It was avoidable if the government took responsibility regarding setting a fair financial plan; however, they did everything to make it suitable for banks, not for the depositors," Dina Abu Zour, a lawyer with the Depositor's Union, told The New Arab.

Lebanon’s banks have kept accounts frozen since fall 2019, allowing depositors to only withdraw small amounts each month – sometimes as little as $400. The informal capital controls persist despite banks not having the authorisation of Lebanon's parliament.

The IMF has said that in order for Lebanon to access funds from a much-needed bailout, it would need to make financial reforms, the first of which would be a formal capital control law. Despite several attempts since 2019, parliament has been unable to agree on a unified version of this law.

"If the banks will continue with the same strategy and the government continues not taking action towards defining the financial plan and passing the necessary laws, then we will see more of these cases," Abu Zour said.