On Thursday, August 11, a 42-year-old gunman, Bassam Al-Sheikh Hussein, invoked a hostage crisis at a Federal Bank in Beirut. Holding a shotgun, Hussein poured gasoline on the bank’s floor, commanding that the bank let him withdraw money from his frozen savings of over $200,000. After approximately six hours, Hussein was granted partial access to his funds in exchange for release of the hostages. Although various Lebanese politicians do not condone the gunman’s actions, much of the Lebanese public and former officials are esteeming him as a national hero.
The hostage crisis in the capital’s popular Hamra district is a reminder for many of Lebanon’s dwindling currency exchange rate and growing restrictive limits on bank withdrawals since 2019. Lebanon’s almost three-year entrenched financial and economic crisis is ranked as one of the world’s worst in over 150 years, according to the World Bank. Gulf News explained the outcome of baking troubles: “Inflation is rampant, electricity is scarce and, according to the United Nations around 80 percent of Lebanese live in poverty. Many Lebanese blame the country’s political elite, wealthy and aged figures entrenched for decades. They cite corruption and also accuse the banking sector for the country’s economic collapse. International donors say aid is conditional on reforms, which politicians have so far resisted.”
The government’s limitation of foreign currency withdrawals has exceptions, however, specifically involving the need to pay for medical bills; yet, oftentimes, even these exceptions are not approved, such as in Hussein’s case. According to the Middle East Eye (MEE), Hussein needed the funds to pay for his father’s medical treatment: “A friend of Hussein told MEE, on condition of anonymity, that he decided to hold up the bank after all his attempts to retrieve his money were unsuccessful. ‘A while ago, his father had to be hospitalised, and he had to beg for money to pay the medical bills. It seems that was the breaking point,’ his friend said.”
Hussein’s personal financial issue resonated with locals in and around the Hamra district in Beirut, where support spread as the hostage situation continued. Tamara Qiblawi, a CNN journalist also writing for Egypt Independent, reported that during the situation, “people converged on the street outside to cheer Hussein on. They chanted anti-government and even some religious slogans in his support…Sympathy for Hussein only grew. A torrent of social media posts praised him and security forces began to quietly speculate about copycat incidents. By the end of the day, he had become a national hero in the eyes of many. ‘A lot of people in Lebanon are considering doing what he’s done, to get themselves imprisoned as they try to release their bank deposits for their families,’ a security source told CNN. ‘It’s a matter of when that trigger point happens.’”
Various organizational directors and officials raised similar concerns as the general public. The New Arab highlighted the opinion of Hassan Mugnieh, the head of Lebanon’s Depositors Association, who argued that corrupt bankers and politicians are pushing people towards acts of desperation: “‘For the Lebanese people and for the depositors, this man is a hero…His father is in the hospital. The bank is giving him 8 million (Lebanese pounds) per month, which means less than 300 dollars while he is paying for electricity 10 million a month. How can he survive? How can he survive?’”
Other officials such as Lebanon’s former Economy Minister Raed Khoury, publicly echoed Mugnieh’s opinion, stating that Hussein was theoretically not in the wrong. However, unlike Mugnieh, Khoury stated that Hussein placed his anger incorrectly. Written in Al Jazeera, “Khoury said the limits on bank withdrawals in Lebanon are ‘really frustrating.’ ‘The man who is asking for his money is totally right; it’s his savings and he has the right to take his money...However, his anger and frustration should be directed at the government, and not at the banks and bank employees…Banks and bank employees are also victims of the government’s corruption … and mismanagement over the last 30 years.’”