A man who held up a bank to withdraw his own money has been hailed as a hero by Lebanese furious at capital controls that are preventing them from accessing their savings amid a financial collapse.
Abdallah Assaii is accused of holding seven staff hostage at a bank in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last week, dousing them in petrol and threatening to set them alight unless they provided him with $50,000 from his account.
Amid a worsening financial crisis, Lebanese banks introduced informal capital controls to restrict withdrawals in late 2019 in order to prevent bank runs.
Since then depositors with US dollar accounts have only been able to withdraw small amounts monthly in Lebanese pounds at an exchange rate far below market value.
With 80 per cent of the population now going without at least one essential service such as public utilities or health care, many Lebanese were willing to excuse Mr Assaii’s extreme actions, with members of his community saying the 37-year-old needed his money to pay for stock at his cafe, which had been robbed weeks before.
“Abdallah managed to do what nobody could do in all of Lebanon,” an NGO worker from Mr Assaii’s home town told The National newspaper.
“He didn’t steal the money. It was his.”
World Bank rounds on Lebanese officials
Many Lebanese say the country’s leaders are to blame for the worsening economic situation.
“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,” one of the bank staff who was taken hostage by Mr Assaii told local news website SBI.
That view is shared by the World Bank, which on Tuesday excoriated Lebanon’s leadership for failing to address the meltdown for over two years.
“Lebanon’s deliberate depression is orchestrated by the country’s elite that has long captured the state and lived off its economic rents,” the global lender said in a statement.
“It has come to threaten the country’s long-term stability and social peace.”
Since the end of the civil war in the 1990s, Lebanon’s economy has been based on unsustainably high levels of debt, with the country attracting foreign capital by offering high interest rates, themselves funded by more borrowing.
In its latest report on Lebanon, the World Bank said the crisis had cut the country’s gross domestic product by nearly 60 per cent since 2019. Government revenues collapsed by almost half in 2021 to reach 6.6 per cent of GDP, the lowest ratio globally after Somalia and Yemen, the bank said.
“Deliberate denial during deliberate depression is creating long-lasting scars on the economy and society,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, the World Bank’s regional director.