BEIRUT – On the 2nd of November, Ali al-Sahili and Ibrahim Baydoun, armed with a pistol and molotov cocktail, stormed a bank in Beirut – in order to take out their own money. Credit Libanais bank – like all financial institutions in Lebanon – had placed limits on how much depositors could withdraw from their savings, stopping them from getting hold of cash they desperately needed.
There have been more than a dozen depositor-led bank raids since July, as Lebanon grapples with one of the worst economic crises in history that has plunged more than three-quarters of the population under the poverty line. Unemployment is soaring, and many go days without fuel, water and electricity. Life-saving medical treatment is costly and rare. Banks in Lebanon have compounded the difficulties faced by the general public by limiting access to how much money people could withdraw from their own savings. Depositors are only allowed to take out around $400 a month, with some banks placing even tighter limits. Due to widespread corruption those with political connections have been able to secretly transfer billions of dollars abroad, further enraging the public. Over the years the Lebanese government has failed to stop things from getting worse: 18 out of 20 banks have major stakeholders linked to the political elites – who also own around 43 per cent of Lebanon's bank assets. Few, if any, politicians have ever been held accountable; leaving people like al-Sahili and Baydoun feeling that they have nowhere to turn for help. Al-Sahili’s son lives in Ukraine where he is a final year medical student. He could no longer pay for his son’s accommodation and university tuition – leaving him homeless in Kyiv. Al-Sahili had tried to raid a bank in October but failed, leaving him so desperate that he’d agreed to sell his kidney for $7,000 on the black market.
But unions and lawyers convinced him to not go through with it, instead al-Sahili decided to try again. He was joined by Baydoun who uses a wheelchair and suffers from various medical conditions which require him to take medicine daily. Baydoun needs money to pay for his expensive treatment. Days before they carried out their action, al-Sahili and Baydoun met with supporter and depositor Katherine al-Ali, and Rami Ollaik, who is part of a group of lawyers and unions which have helped to organise the depositor movement. Ollaik insists that the informal withdrawal limits implemented by banks, which have not been passed through parliament, are illegal and that under article 184 of the Lebanese penal code the use of force in defence of themselves or their money is permitted.In the meeting, documented by VICE World News, the group discussed their options, legal rights and how they would carry out the raid. “They control our lives. They stole public funds then private funds. They humiliate us. There is no solution without confrontation … we cannot live like this anymore.” Ollaik told VICE News. On the morning of the action, we were given various locations to attend with no other details. On arrival at the final location a crowd, including police officers, had gathered outside a bank. After the doors opened briefly, VICE World News reported from inside the raid, documenting the chaos and negotiations for 16 hours. Al-Sahilii was armed with a pistol, Baydoun held a molotov cocktail and gasoline was poured on the counters. The group barricaded the entrance using tables and cabinets. Around 8 employees were inside the bank whilst the raid took place.
Large crowds gathered outside as the army and special forces prepared to storm the bank if no resolution was found. At 3AM an agreement was reached in which al-Sahili, Baydoun, Ollaik and al-Ali would hand themselves in but the depositors would be able to keep hold of the money they had obtained.They were detained and jailed, after which they all went on hunger strike.Eventually all charges were dropped; and at least al-Sahili and Baydoun were able to keep their money. All four who took part in the bank raid claim that this is just the start of a depositors' revolution with al-Ali insisting: “I would break in again, no matter what. Even if it costs me my life”.