Bank ‘Robberies’ Are a Symptom of Deeper Crises in Lebanon

The people are struggling with compounding disasters—and, tragically, taking matters into their own hands

Bank ‘Robberies’ Are a Symptom of Deeper Crises in Lebanon
Lebanese activists gather outside a local bank, after an armed man stormed the branch demanding access to his deposits / Marwan Naamani / picture alliance via Getty Images

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Welcome to Lebanon. Here, criminals parade around as leaders and citizens slouch from place to place as criminals — the former glorying in their status as robber barons, the latter trapped in a perverse polity in which they must engage in self-help or suffer in silence.

This past week, some people used force or threats of force to recover their bank deposits — paid in cash, or in a combination of cash and checks — as everyone struggles with so-called “informal capital controls” and deeper, compounding crises. Early in the week, a woman used a toy gun to recover money and treat her sick relatives. On Friday alone, people held up at least five banks. It’s not the first time that people have taken matters into their own hands. And it won’t be the last time, either. The dithering and inaction by Lebanese leaders will likely make matters worse. 

Here’s how we got to this point.

After decades of war, occupation and factional feuding, the Lebanese began suffering through compounding crises in 2019: fiscal, monetary, financial and economic. Since then, though they weren’t exactly living in paradise before, people in Lebanon have been “sinking” through one of the 10 (perhaps even three) worst collapses in the world since the 1800s. More than 500,000 Lebanese lost their jobs or businesses rapidly; at least 40 percent of Lebanese are now unemployed. Others have struggled to make a living wage, while millions have lost their savings, salaries and benefits. The currency has slid and collapsed, only to then slide and collapse again. At least 80 percent of Lebanese are poor. About 90 percent of the Syrians and Palestinians living in Lebanon, regardless of whether they are registered and how the Lebanese state and international organizations classify them, need (additional) assistance to cope with these crises. So, too, do hundreds of thousands of migrants from Asia and Africa who have also suffered while living in Lebanon.

Against that backdrop, people have been contributing to crises as they try to cope. Perverse? Yes. Some grand design, malicious purpose or inherent criminality? No. Not these people, at least.

Time and again, people have taken matters into their own hands because — much like people who have played by the rules, however warped in principle and skewed in practice — they have no good options. They have done so peacefully, such as when they protested in Beirut and across the country for months in late 2019 and early 2020. They have done so violently, such as when they’ve rioted, blocked roads, burned tires, or attacked business owners — from prominent bankers holed up in pilfered palaces, to gas station owners in north Lebanon, to shopkeepers in Beirut and the Bekaa Valley. They have done so spontaneously, or at least without political direction, while struggling day after day — like when a woman rammed her sports-utility vehicle into a pharmacy. They have done so as instruments of factional bosses, each adept at initiating, escalating, managing, or diffusing conflict as they deem necessary or useful — like when gunmen clashed in Khaldeh, a town south of Beirut, in August 2020 and August 2021, or fought in Beirut skirmishes in October 2021.

Now, they have been using force or threats of force to recover deposits. Are they robbers? Yes, in a sense. After all, they’re taking money from banks and — more importantly — from other people, just like them, who have a dwindling pool of money to meet different needs over time. 

Or are they really victims, even if they have been behaving like and being labeled as vigilantes? Yes. 

And why? 

Well, they live in an unjust land, ruled by hard men who would rather die or kill — or send others to kill and die, brutalize and attack, intimidate and cajole — than undermine the sources of their own influence, let alone push themselves out of power. Take, for instance, the Beirut Blast: the August 2020 explosion that leveled much of the city. It was a catastrophe atop crises, a humiliation atop struggles and an indignity atop crimes. Aside from some token prisoners, no Lebanese leaders, officers, officials or bankers have gone to jail. Nor have they otherwise experienced due consequences for their actions. No, no. Instead, as they have done after political and other crimes for decades, they have managed to sideline Lebanese judges and investigators whose two great offenses are having brains and having spines — both are a problem given that the land is littered with leaders whose top talents are sycophancy and avarice.

Lebanon being Lebanon, the authorities understand the absurdity of the position they and people are in— and, yes, at some level, put themselves and us all in. Arriving at these scenes, they have contained crises and allowed bankers, tellers and others to negotiate settlements on the spot — thereby, at one level, encouraging others to try holding up banks and getting their due and, in another sense, triggering more hopelessness among those too virtuous, principled, reluctant or meek to act for themselves. Of course, soldiers and police have been trying to bend instead of breaking — as is the Lebanese way. They understand who the real crooks are, have been and will long be: those who rule, and rob, the republic.

People are committing crimes, by the letter of the law, whatever it may be and however it has been created, in a lawlessness from on high. And, beyond that, these people are committing acts that harm, endanger and disadvantage others. Moreover, in recovering their own money, they are taking funds from a diminishing pool of resources that all people need. No matter what, everyone is competing with everyone. Etc., etc. 

But, see, they have just fallen into yet another of those traps in Lebanon: self-help. If citizens sit quietly, or do things by the book, be it a book written by a state, church, faction or clan, they watch as others steal and then eat, drink and play with pilfered money. To call such people criminals is, in its own way, criminal. Yes, plenty of people have struggled in silence — demonstrating dignity and grace over the years. They haven’t turned to this form of self-help. Even so, everyone has long since turned to other forms of it — and often to address problems or inconveniences that, seen in the shadow of people trying to treat or feed families, are frankly trivial. 

Big picture: The response to serial, obscene injustice and indignity will not forever be the peaceful protest, the polite disagreement or the manipulated ballot box. This is a lesson from Lebanon’s own past, never mind neighboring states and societies in recent decades. 

As I wrote in another article, sharing a proverb that our editors graciously let me deliver in full, without some cutesy sanitization, Lebanese leaders “don’t fuck, get fucked or get out of the way and let others fuck.” They don’t act, such as by putting their pants on, forming a cabinet with some dispatch and putting together even a half-assed plan for a so-called recovery. They don’t get acted upon, accepting the recommendations — however ideological, however blinkered, whatever — from representatives of international institutions or other states. And they don’t get out of the way to let others — be they less-offensive establishment types or true reformists and the like — from giving it a shot without undue, nefarious interference or more active, totalistic forms of control. 

Paragons of injustice sit atop the political order, as they have throughout this new era of independence, which has now lasted longer than each of the Lebanese civil war and the concurrent occupations by Syrian and Israeli forces. Unnamed assailants — always unnamed — have assassinated leaders, officers and officials left, right and center. Leaders and bankers have pilfered, or presided over the pilfering of, billions of dollars. Bosses have created overlapping constitutional crises, bouts of political paralysis and institutional voids. And so on. That the Lebanese, and others, take matters into their own hands should shock only the innocent, idiotic or insolent — even if and as reasonable people may disagree about what folks can, should or must do for themselves these days.

A bank robbery isn’t something to cheer — or, at least, cheer loudly and proudly without thinking through what comes next. Seeing that the state’s own officers, soldiers and police are at times paralyzed under the weight of hypocrisy and absurdity, seeing that leaders are indifferent, seeing that bankers are complicit and seeing that citizens are on their side (to a point), folks will be engaging in this specific form of self-help — like all the forms of self-help we have seen in Lebanon — again, frequently and soon. 

Bankers, tragicomically, are now going to shutter businesses for three days. How irrelevant. They have been shuttering banks repeatedly, every time a firecracker goes off, thereby slowing their own slide with incremental steps and half-measures. How important. People need to access their money — now, see, more than ever before. And how absurd. While all this has been happening, Lebanese leaders missed another parliamentary session this week to honor another ghost — the factions never so united as when worshiping their own bloody, calamitous pasts.

All the details aside, the real story continues regardless of how compounding crises are manifesting in a given day or week. And, here, the impotent and innocent continue to wait on the indifferent to do the impossible. Welcome. Welcome to Lebanon.

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