The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Security forces gather outside a bank in Beirut on Aug. 11. (Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT — An armed man took hostages at a bank branch in Beirut on Thursday, quickly becoming a folk hero for a tired and angry nation.

A man identified as Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein entered the Federal Bank of Lebanon in the Hamra neighborhood with a can of gasoline, threatening to set himself on fire if he couldn’t access the money in his account, amounting to about $210,000. He later brandished a rifle, leading to hours of tense hostage negotiations.

As the day wore on, a crowd gathered outside the bank to cheer him on. “Give him his money, give him his money,” they shouted in unison, pressing up against a line of soldiers.

The incident reflected a deep frustration in Lebanon over an ever-worsening economic crisis. Since 2019, there have been ad hoc limits on the amount of hard currency depositors can withdraw, an effort to avoid a run on the banks and a collapse of the financial system. The policy has led to waves of nationwide protests, demanding accountability for the country’s dynastic political class and an end to endemic corruption.

But the country has only sunk deeper into economic malaise, with the pound losing more than 20 times its value against the U.S. dollar since 2019. The World Food Programme estimates 46 percent of Lebanese households don’t have enough to eat.

Al-Sheikh Hussein burst into the bank saying he needed the money in his account to pay his father’s medical bills, a claim later corroborated by his brother. Banks currently allow depositors to take out a maximum of $400 per month.

Among those who gathered outside the bank to show their solidarity was Sandy Chamoun, a 35-year-old artist.

“Every one of us has been robbed from different directions, from banks and from the government,” she said. “I thought we should be outside, supporting him, so he doesn’t give up, so he doesn’t feel alone or besieged.”

Video showed the scene outside a bank in Beirut after a gunman broke in and demanded money on Aug. 11. (Video: The Washington Post)

“This is called self-defense,” Chamoun added. “It’s been three years that they’ve been depriving us from our money, and he’s telling them ‘my father is sick.’ What more can they want?”

Chamoun’s late father and her mother were both bank employees. Her mother retired two years before the crisis hit, and she watched as their life savings was locked away in an institution she had worked at for more than 40 years.

“What’s more insulting is that this is happening to someone who, for her whole life, worked in a bank,” Chamoun said.

Hassan Moghnieh, the head of the Association of Depositors in Lebanon, who also served as a mediator in the negotiations, said the gunman took eight hostages: six employees, the bank branch manager and one customer. He rejected the bank’s offers of $5,000, $10,000 and $30,000, finally accepting $35,000 be given to his brother in exchange for turning himself in and releasing the hostages.

After a nearly seven-hour standoff, Al-Sheikh Hussein was escorted out into a white van. Some clapped for him, others cheered. It was unclear what, if any, criminal charges he might face.

Although elections in May ushered in new independent candidates that sparked hope in the country, the government is still largely ruled by the same families and parties that fought each other during a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990.

Lebanon’s central bank governor, Riad Salameh, is facing investigation, charged in March with illicit enrichment and money laundering. Last month, the central bank was raided by security personnel. But with judicial authorities frequently on strike, corruption investigations tend to drag on without resolution.

Dina Abou Zour, a lawyer with the Depositors’ Union, predicted people would continue resorting to desperate measures if the banks and politicians failed to address their demands.

“We are truly trapped. We are the hostages, not the [bank] employees, or as it is being portrayed, the banks,” she said. “We are the victims; we are not the criminals.”

Haidamous reported from Washington.