BEIRUT: Beirut MP Cynthia Zarazir on Wednesday joined the growing numbers of angry depositors in Lebanon who have resorted to force in an attempt to withdraw their own money, access to which has been withheld by banks since 2019 while the country faces an economic crisis.
She managed to obtain $8,500 from her deposit account, which she said she needs to pay medical bills, several hours after entering the bank and following negotiations with its management.
Her actions came less than 24 hours after George Siam — Lebanon’s former ambassador to Qatar, Turkey, Brazil and the UAE, and currently honorary consul of Ireland in Lebanon — stormed the Intercontinental Bank in Hazmieh, 6 kilometers from Beirut, where he staged a sit-in and refused to leave until he was allowed to withdraw his money.
Zarazir, one of a number of MPs who have participated in protests across Lebanon since 2019, entered the Byblos Bank branch in Antelias, 12 kilometers from Beirut, on Wednesday morning without an appointment.
She waited until another customer was leaving and forced her way in but, unlike some other angry customers who have confronted staff at banks across the country, she was not armed with a weapon or flammable material.
Such desperate actions are no longer confined to retired soldiers, merchants or people with limited incomes whose deposits are frozen in banks while they face demands for school or university fees for their children, debt repayments, or medical bills.
Zarazir, who was elected in May, was accompanied at the bank by lawyers and later joined by fellow MP Halima Kaakour. Zarazir said she had acted as an “ordinary citizen” and “relinquished her immunity” as an MP when she entered the bank. She said she needed the money she demanded to pay her insurance company for surgery.
Lawyer Sharif Suleiman, an attorney representing MPs, including Zarazir, who are demanding action to address the financial crisis, told Arab News that management at the bank insisted that Zarazir sign an agreement not to disclose what happened inside the bank as a condition of giving her the money she required.
“When Zarazir left the bank she tore up the pledge and said it was illegal, and challenged the bank’s management to go to court and sue her,” Suleiman said.
“What Zarazir did shows that she is just like the rest of the Lebanese people. She did not act like an MP, to prevent any future political blackmailing.”
The desperate action being taken against banks by growing numbers of depositors is in part a response to the continuing failure of politicians to develop and implement a strategic plan and timeline for the release of bank deposits, three years after they were seized.
In the southern suburbs of Beirut for example, depositor Hussein Chokr, a retired security officer, staged a protest in a branch of Credit Libanais and demanded he be allowed to access his savings to pay his children’s university fees.
Some of the incidents have turned violent. A customer fired a weapon at a Bank of Beirut branch in the northern city of Byblos after a security guard refused to let him enter because he did not have an appointment.
The depositor, a Lebanese citizen, took a machine gun from his car and fired at the bank, causing material damage. Police have launched an investigation.
Hassan Moghnieh, head of the Association of Depositors in Lebanon, told Arab News: “I expect the depositors’ protests to increase and the situation to further deteriorate. I am not proud of it.
“Closing the banks will not solve the crisis. What is needed is the formation of a crisis committee that will set priorities because up until now nobody has tried to solve the crisis. The protests taking place will continue and might escalate.”
In comments posted on social media some people said that Zarazir’s actions will encourage other bank customers similarly to take the law into their own hands. Others questioned whether, as an MP, Zarazir received special treatment from the security forces, given that they let her go while other people in similar situations have been arrested.
Meanwhile, a group of people staged a protest in Beirut outside the country’s central bank, during which tires were set on fire. The protesters were swiftly surrounded by police amid an altercation.
Moghnieh said incidents such as the one at the central bank are different from individual protests by depositors because “they are politically motivated and the participants are affiliated with the president’s party, which is demanding the dismissal of the governor of the Central Bank, accusing him of corruption.”
Lebanese banks accuse the country’s political class of “having withdrawn from the central bank the amount of $62.670 billion, which was wasted on maintaining subsidies, fixing the exchange rate, the high-interest rates, the electricity sector and the state’s import needs, among other things.”
Depositors accuse the banks of transferring their money abroad and say banks share with politicians the responsibility and blame for the lack of access to deposits.