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.
Mr Assaii reportedly apologised to the staff he took hostage after he surrendered to police.
While he was arrested, in the confusion he was reportedly able to pass the money to his wife, who remains at large.
No one was seriously injured in the incident but lawyers for Mr Assaii's family and the bank disagree on the level of violence he used during negotiations with bank staff and police.
His family and friends deny he physically assaulted staff or threatened to kill them, describing instead a man with no criminal record, driven to desperation by debt and unfair banking practices.
Mr Assaii started a hunger strike on Thursday, according to his family.
His case “matters to every single person, including myself”, activist Yassine Yassine told The National. “They’re holding everybody’s money.”
“We are asking from the state to release Abdallah Assaii because he is in the right,” local imam Alaa Baalbaki said at a gathering of Mr Assaii's supporters during Friday prayers in Jeb Jannine. “We are all Abdallah Assaii.”
The World Bank report came a day after Beirut resumed bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund that began last year but were halted due to disagreements between rival political groups.
While elections are scheduled for May, few expect the results to challenge the entrenched sectarian power sharing arrangement in force since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war.
On Monday former prime minister Saad Hariri said he was leaving politics, leaving the Sunni constituency without an obvious leader. By consensus, the role of prime minister is always filled by a Sunni Muslim, while the preisdent is a Christian and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.
Mr Harri’s support had been greatly reduced by the withdrawal of support from Saudi Arabia.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt said Mr’s Hariri’s retirement gave “a free hand for Hizbollah and the Iranians“.