We are hostages in our own home: In Lebanon, the economic crisis continues to worsen?

Half of the Lebanese population now relies on humanitarian aid, according to the UN. And some residents are robbing their own banks to reclaim their savings.

In response to the economic crisis in Lebanon, many merchants are displaying prices in US dollars instead of Lebanese pounds (illustration). (HUSSAM SHBARO / ANADOLU AGENCY)?.

In Lebanon, the national currency is on the verge of disappearing. Whereas before the start of the economic crisis in 2019, the largest bill – 100,000 Lebanese pounds – was worth 70 euros, it has now fallen below the symbolic barrier of 1 euro. Therefore, it has lost 98% of its value.
In response to extreme devaluation, many merchants now prefer to display prices in US dollars. “We gradually switched over with the crisis, from Lebanese pounds to US dollars,” Karim said while shopping in an east Beirut supermarket. “It’s more convenient, because before we had to come to the supermarket with bundles of money. Now we can pay in dollars. Because we import everything in the end, the country produces nothing. So these are the real prices displayed in supermarkets. The rest was just a lie,” the fifty-year-old believes.

It’s much simpler: our economy is dollarized.

The problem is that unlike Karim, the majority of the population is still paid in Lebanese lira, like Séréna, who is 30 years old. “Our salaries don’t keep up with inflation, it’s unfair!” She denounces. “Filling the fridge has become very expensive. We just buy what is necessary, the minimum to survive.”

Rob one’s own bank to get back their own savings?

According to the United Nations, half of the population now relies on humanitarian aid. Indeed, most Lebanese have no safety net, no pension or health insurance. And since the financial crisis, which is getting worse every day in the country, their savings are blocked in banks. Withdrawals are rationed by authorities. “It’s a catastrophe,” said Zeina, 60, who was trying to get some bills from an ATM. “Our own money is blocked, we don’t know what to do. We’re hostages but in our own home. No work, no money…It’s not fair.”

I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for the electricity at the end of the month.

Zeina holds the corrupt political class in power responsible for the current crisis in Lebanon. Since 2019, Lebanese citizens like her have been unable to withdraw their money while many politicians and bank directors have managed to save their own fortunes. “Whether they’re Christian or Muslim, they’re all in the same boat,” says the sixty-year-old. “They’ve transferred their money abroad and are living very well, while we, the people, are suffering!”
A situation that has emerged as a phenomenon a few months ago: dozens of Lebanese, sometimes armed, who are robbing their own bank. So far, none of them have been convicted. For while robbing a bank is obviously illegal in Lebanon, preventing a depositor from withdrawing their money is also illegal.

Robbing one’s own bank to get back their savings?

We are, in quotes, stealing our own money. Between us, we prefer to call it a ‘version 2.0 withdrawal’, says George*, who met with franceinfo in an underground parking lot. “It’s a bank withdrawal, but one that requires strong-arm methods, even though it is our absolute right”. This man, who says he is ready to rob the director of his bank very soon, suffers from a chronic illness. He needs the $100,000 deposited in his account to get treatment. “To be very clear: today, pushed to desperation and armed with our right to survival, we are prepared to do anything.”

In a 2.0 heist, the robber is the hero and the thief is the bank.

George is part of one of the most important Lebanese depositor rights associations, Mouttahidoun. Its founder, lawyer Rami Ollaik, supports these amateur robbers. He justifies the use of violence against the directors of banking institutions: “Despite the evidence, none have been arrested,” he recalls. “Justice does not act, no one is held accountable. So we can’t tell depositors who are dying at hospital doors or who can’t feed their families to patiently wait for justice to wake up”.
“Their savings are in the hands of bank owners who are thieves,” continues Rami Ollaik. “They spend without counting and don’t care about people’s suffering. So we must help depositors to get justice for themselves and recover their money.” These robberies are also not without risk. Banks are indeed recruiting private security agents, often armed. Real militias, hired to protect their agencies and the homes of their powerful leaders.