Constant dollars

An armed woman organizes a robbery at the Blom bank in Beirut to recover her savings

BEIRUT — Sali Hafiz donned a black T-shirt and pants and a pair of lime green sneakers. With her mask askew, she rushed to a bank in the Lebanese capital on Wednesday, cocked a gun in the air and asked him for money.

She became an instant hero.

Hafiz is the second person in Beirut this summer to take hostages at a bank, where depositors have been barred from accessing money in their accounts for nearly two years. Both incidents, and the broad public support for them, illustrate Lebanon’s deep disillusionment with the state and banking institutions, fueled by growing anger over the rising cost of living and lack of public services.

In October 2019, amid a spiraling economic crisis, protests erupted across the country demanding the resignation of the country’s political elite and an end to corruption. Fearing a run on banks, branches closed for weeks and then imposed ad hoc limits on the amount of dollars that could be withdrawn, excluding Lebanese from their own accounts.

Banks now allow depositors to withdraw a maximum of $400 per month, in addition to a more modest amount in Lebanese pounds.

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It would have taken more than four years for Hafiz to withdraw the $20,000 from his account, and time is not in his favor. She needs $50,000 to treat her sister’s cancer, she said, and has been pleading with the bank for months to access her funds. “My sister is dying before my eyes,” she said in an interview with a local channel, allegedly recorded shortly after the robbery from an undisclosed location.

“The bank publicly robbed us,” she continued, saying she had reached a point where she was going to sell her kidney to pay for the treatment. “I can’t hurt an ant,” she said, “but this person who can’t hurt an ant is watching a part of them melt away in front of them, and most people say ‘God heal her.’

After the robbery, Bank Blom released a statement confirming that Hafiz was a depositor at the branch. He said she entered with a group of people, arresting customers and employees, doused gasoline around the bank and threatened to set people inside on fire. She then forced the manager and treasurer to open the safe and took the money inside. No injuries were reported.

A video shared by the Depositors’ Union showed Hafiz counting stacks of cash. She only managed to get out $12,000, she later said, and the equivalent of another $1,000 in local currency.

It was, in many ways, a repeat of an incident last month, when a man walked into a bank in Beirut with a can of gasoline, threatening to set himself on fire if he didn’t. was not allowed to withdraw the $210,000 from his account, which he says he had to pay for his father’s medical bills. He later brandished a gun, which led to hours of negotiations that ended with the bank agreeing to give his brother $35,000. The man was arrested, but released days later and never charged with a crime.

A man took hostages in a bank in Lebanon. People came to support him.

As in August, people were quick to celebrate the heist. On social networks, many photos shared Hafiz inside the bank, imposing the image of a crown on top of his head. Others posted messages of support on his Facebook page. “A hero of my country,” wrote one. “Well done,” wrote another user, “things only work that way.”

As Lebanon sinks deeper into economic malaise, people are resorting to desperate measures. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that 46% of households do not have enough to eat. The World Bank has said the economic and financial crisis could be among the three worst global crises since the mid-19th century.

The long-broken power grid is worse than ever, with almost everyone in the country relying more than ever on generators, which run on expensive gas, pump toxic fumes into the air and fill the crowded capital with constant noise. Many in Lebanon have simply chosen to live without electricity, slowly learning to adapt to life with only a few hours of electricity per day.

Gas prices also rose this month, after the central bank ended a subsidy it said had depleted its reserves. The value of the Lebanese pound hit a record high on Wednesday, hitting 37,000 pounds to the dollar, although it remains officially pegged, as it has been for decades, at 1,500 to the dollar.

Wages have not caught up and unemployment is endemic. Amid the steady devaluation of the pound and triple-digit inflation, many households are unable to afford basic groceries, or even keep water in.

In this context, many support Hafiz. Shortly after the burglary, she posted on Facebook, writing “All the police are under my house and I’m already at the airport, see you soon in Istanbul.”

A flight from Beirut to Istanbul was due to take off about an hour later. Lebanon’s General Directorate of Security later said she did not leave the country via the airport.

In her interview, she apologized for scaring anyone, adding that the gun was a toy she received from her young nephew.

As news of an arrest warrant broke for her, the interviewer asked her what she would do if caught. “I want to ask anyone who interrogates me, or anyone who captures me,” Hafiz said, “to put themselves in my shoes. If something like this happened to their son or their sister, I want to see what they would do.

“People commit suicide,” she continued. “I tell them not to take the gun and shoot themselves. Go get your money, even if it costs you your life.

As people followed Hafiz’s story, there were reports of another heist in a mountain town not far from the capital.