Why a man behind a Beirut bank holdup became the face of Lebanon’s painful financial collapse

Special Popular perception of hostage-taker as a national hero underscores the depth of Lebanese depair over its financial collapse. (AFP)
Popular perception of hostage-taker as a national hero underscores the depth of Lebanese depair over its financial collapse. (AFP)
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Updated 18 August 2022

Why a man behind a Beirut bank holdup became the face of Lebanon’s painful financial collapse

Why a man behind a Beirut bank holdup became the face of Lebanon’s painful financial collapse
  • While the world reels from rising food and fuel prices, Lebanese have long lived with hyperinflation and its effects
  • Move to release Bassam Hussein comes as no surprise after lawsuit is dropped against someone seen as a national hero

BEIRUT: The news that Lebanon’s attorney general on Tuesday released a man who stormed a bank in Beirut last week and took hostages would have scandalized the public in most countries. But Bassam Hussein was no ordinary hostage-taker and Lebanon is no ordinary country.

Hussein had reportedly held bank employees and customers at gunpoint on August 11 to demand his own money back. According to the National News Agency of Lebanon, when his request to withdraw part of his frozen savings of $210,000 to cover medical bills for his ailing father was denied, he threatened to torch the bank and kill everyone in it.

The attorney general’s decision came after the Federal Bank dropped its lawsuit against Hussein, who emerged as a national hero in a country where banks have subjected their customers to all manner of restrictions, including strict limits on savings withdrawals.

Hussein had targeted a bank but his act of desperation was viewed by many of his compatriots as emblematic of a much bigger rot.

Lebanon, a nation once described as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” the darling of foreign investors, artists and intellectuals, has been reduced to a perpetually failing state, with the dubious honor of having an inflation rate that crossed the 200 percent mark this year.

Last week, The New York Times published a story comparing the rising inflation rate in the US — currently at 9 percent — to Argentina’s 90 percent. This is a country that in the 1980s saw its rate hit an “unbelievable” 3,000 percent. Citizens of the South American nation struggle to cope, using cash to pay for everything from buildings to coffee and store their money everywhere but the bank, the newspaper reported.

Similar to Argentina, Lebanon’s once-welcoming banks with revolving glass doors are now fortified with heavy metal and barbed wire for security, all of which are spray painted over with angry graffiti of desperate people denied access to their savings.

The crippling financial crisis that began in 2019, accompanied by a rapid devaluation of the national currency and runaway inflation, has pushed an unprecedented number of families in Lebanon below the poverty line.

Bread is one of the few subsidized food items in the country. (AFP)

An embodiment of this tragedy is Rachelle, a widow with a special-needs son, whose husband committed suicide two years ago following a long history of family quarrels over large sums of money lost as Lebanon’s economy unraveled.

Rachelle, a resident of Jounieh who did not want to give her last name, can only withdraw a maximum of $400 per month from her bank account. She is one of millions of Lebanese who cannot freely access their savings, because the funds were used by banks to pay unreasonably high interest rates to attract more deposits.

The banking crisis had an immediate effect on the Lebanese lira. The shortage of dollars in the currency market, the country defaulting on its Eurobond debt, and the resulting loss of faith in the stability of the local currency all contributed to the rapid devaluation of the lira.

The Lebanese currency has lost more than 90 percent of its value since 2019. As a result, people’s purchasing power has plummeted, multiple types of goods have disappeared from the shelves, prices have skyrocketed, and the country has been declared a “hunger” hotspot.

Almost 80 percent of the Lebanese population is now considered to be living below the poverty line after the imposition of informal capital controls.


* 6.7m Population in 2021.

* -.08% Annual population growth (2021).

* 150k Net migration (2017)

Source: World Bank

A recent World Bank report labeled the financial meltdown as “deliberate” and one of the worst economic crises in modern times.

Rachelle now survives on small amounts of money sent by her family and in-laws from abroad, in addition to food stamps and parcels distributed by local NGOs.

“I cannot pay my bills; I live in constant fear and anxiety that I will be thrown out of my house. I have diabetes and I am close to giving up altogether as I can barely afford my medication,” she told Arab News.

Like her, millions of Lebanese are unable these days to buy medicines, which are entirely imported from abroad, leading to spikes in prices every time the lira depreciates.

Lebanon has been plagued by corruption for decades, a situation that benefits those well connected to the political elite at the expense of everyone else. The 2019 economic meltdown resulted in the near total disappearance of the middle class — who have now become the working poor.

“Before the crisis, we had some kind of a middle class. The result of the inflation led to a lot of people becoming poor or falling under the poverty line,” Mohamad Faour, a professor of finance at the American University of Beirut, told Arab News.

“Whatever was in the middle has ceased to exist,” he said, referring to the deepening economic inequality in Lebanon. “We have a new class of nouveau riche whose income is in dollars, but even their condition is not quite stable.”

Protesters march against Lebanon's draft capital control law in April this year. (AFP)

The problem of sky-high inflation is compounded by a fluctuating currency exchange rate, which can go from 20,000 lira to one dollar to 30,000 in one week, making financial planning impossible.

To make matters worse, even when the lira appreciates — mostly due to dollar injections into the market by the central bank — prices rarely go down.

Elie, an unemployed Lebanese university graduate who lives in Beirut, told Arab News: “I’ve somewhat become used to uncontrollable price changes, and ever since the crisis began, I’ve started compromising with several things and checking prices of any item I buy.”

He added: “What still surprises me is that there is absolutely no price control, and the same item on the same day can be found with several drastically different prices in different shops.”

Faour says this anomaly is a legitimate grievance, but explains that it is not unique to Lebanon. “This happens to all countries facing currency (crises),” he told Arab News.

Lebanon, a nation once described as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” the darling of foreign investors, artists and intellectuals, has been reduced to a perpetually failing state. (AFP)

“The value of goods and currency are based on expectations and in Lebanon the situation is chaotic and the general sentiment is negative. But we also can’t neglect the big exploitative element of many importers who are profiting off margins due to uncertainty.” 

Political and bureaucratic mismanagement and inaction are seen as contributing factors in the runaway inflation. Faour says reasonable reforms proposed by the International Monetary Fund have inevitably been sabotaged by politically connected bankers and politicians.

All the traditional parties and politicians ruling Lebanon have played a role in leading the country into the abyss, he says.

“You have a power-sharing agreement that isn’t enabling any decision-making. We have to address the problems head-on, which is very hard because it means facing off with the bank owners who will be taking a big part of the hit due to their reckless lending decisions,” he said.

“We have to be able to tell depositors what they’ve lost and what they can still have. We need a safety net to make the descent less painful. The stabilization, unfortunately, will entail unpopular decisions.”

While the volume of the Lebanese lira in the market has increased significantly since the beginning of the financial crisis, this is not what is at the heart of the problem, according to Faour.

An all too familiar sight in Lebanon, as people wait for hours in cars to get fuel at a gas station in Zalka. (AFP file photo)

“Public misconception is that inflation is because the government is printing too much money, but that’s not the case,” he told Arab News.

“It’s the result of the exchange rate collapse and the government fiscal policy which has been characterized by austerity.”

Pointing out that “public salaries are still at the original 1,500 lira rate,” he said. “The government is actually not spending enough money; the fiscal deficit has dropped dramatically.”

To the people of Lebanon, this abrupt economic decline means more than just numbers on a graph. The growing inability to secure even their basic needs has taken its toll on the mental health of the Lebanese.

“People around are, at least partly, in clear denial,” Elie, the unemployed graduate, told Arab News, speaking philosophically.

“Everybody right now would say that they have become used to the dramatic changes of everyday life compared with just a few years ago and that ‘it could have been worse.’

“But deep down they know that it really couldn’t, that all aspects of life at times appear unbearable and psychologically exhausting.”


Turkiye jails teen who added moustache to Erdogan poster

Turkiye jails teen who added moustache to Erdogan poster
Updated 58 min 26 sec ago

Turkiye jails teen who added moustache to Erdogan poster

Turkiye jails teen who added moustache to Erdogan poster
  • He was arrested after being identified by CCTV cameras

ISTANBUL: Turkish authorities on Tuesday seized and jailed a 16-year-old youth for drawing a moustache on an election campaign poster showing re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, media reports said.
Several media close to the opposition, including daily newspapers BirGun, Cumhuriyet and private TV station Halk TV, said the youth from the southeastern town of Mersin was accused of defacing the poster near his home with a pen, scribbling “a Hitler moustache and writing insulting comments.”
He was arrested after being identified by CCTV cameras, media reports said. Authorities interviewed him at his home where he reportedly “admitted drawing the moustache” while denying writing the accompanying comments.
Taken before the public prosecutor he was found to have “insulted the president” and was jailed at a nearby youth facility, according to Halk TV.
Erdogan extended his 20-year rule over Turkiye after winning the May 28 second round of the presidential election to embark on a new five-year term.
According to the justice ministry, “insulting the president” is one of the most common crimes in Turkiye, resulting in 16,753 convictions last year.

Short of animals, Gaza Zoo fights to survive

Short of animals, Gaza Zoo fights to survive
Updated 06 June 2023

Short of animals, Gaza Zoo fights to survive

Short of animals, Gaza Zoo fights to survive
  • Two of Gaza’s zoos have closed

GAZA: Large paintings of a bear, an elephant and a giraffe decorate the outer walls of NAMA Zoo in Gaza City, but none of these wild creatures is represented live among those caged inside.

Six years ago, the lone tiger died, and despite visitors’ frequent demands for a replacement, the owners have not been able to afford to buy or feed a new one.

There were once six zoos in Gaza, a narrow coastal enclave which has been closed off behind security walls since 2007.

But with the economy crippled by a blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, two of the zoos have closed.

“Because of the lack of resources and capabilities and the high prices of animals it is difficult to replace an animal you lose,” said Mahmoud Al-Sultan, the medical supervisor of the NAMA zoo.

The original animals at the zoo were smuggled through tunnels from Egypt over a decade ago. 

As well as four pairs of lions, each of which goes through 60 kg of meat a week, the zoo has crocodiles, hyenas, foxes, deer and monkeys, as well as a lone ibex and a solitary wolf.

At the lions’ cages, children stand to take pictures from a distance and giggle as they touch the bars on the cages of deer and birds. 

A ticket costs less than $1 because people can’t afford more, Sultan said.

“I come here to have some fun, but I see the same animals every time,” said nine-year-old Fouad Saleh. “I wish I could see an elephant, a giraffe or a tiger.”

For the moment, that appears unlikely. Gaza lacks the medical facilities to treat animals like lions and tigers.

In the past, the Four Paws international animal welfare group has had to rescue animals and find them new homes in Israel, Jordan or as far away as South Africa.

“We struggle to afford the food,” said Sultan. “Sometimes we provide frozen food, chicken, turkeys, and sometimes if a donkey is injured we have it slaughtered and shared out between the lions.”

UAE to tighten insurance cover for ships flying its flag

UAE to tighten insurance cover for ships flying its flag
Updated 06 June 2023

UAE to tighten insurance cover for ships flying its flag

UAE to tighten insurance cover for ships flying its flag

DUBAI: The UAE is tightening insurance requirements for vessels registered under its flag, according to a government advisory, amid growing concerns over ships sailing without top tier cover in the event of an oil spill.

Ships typically have protection and indemnity insurance which covers liability claims including environmental damage and injury. Separate hull and machinery policies cover vessels against physical damage.

About 90 percent of the world’s ocean going tonnage is covered by the 12 ship insurers that make up the International Group.

P&I insurers outside of the IG that cover UAE flagged ships will need to meet a number of requirements including providing evidence of membership of a recognized maritime related professional agency or regulatory body, the UAE’s Ministry of Energy and Infrastructure said in a June 2 advisory posted on its website.

Other requirements include providing details of the five largest settled claims or details of claims over $10 million, the advisory said, adding that applications needed to be submitted before June 30.

The advisory, which was also addressed to ship owners, said evidence would need to be shown about so-called blue cards, which cover pollution damage.

The UAE flagged fleet includes dozens of oil tankers — many of which are old — and over 200 offshore vessels typically used in oil related trading, according to shipping data on public database Equasis.

Hundreds of “ghost” tankers, which are not fully regulated, have joined an opaque parallel shipping trade over the past few years, carrying oil from countries hit by Western sanctions and restrictions, including Russia and Iran.

The number of incidents last year, including groundings, collisions and near misses involving these ships reached the highest in years, a Reuters investigation showed.

Ports in China’s Shandong province are demanding more detailed information about oil tankers that are more than 15 years old that call at their terminals, sources with knowledge of the matter said this week.

Khartoum islanders ‘under siege’

Khartoum islanders ‘under siege’
Updated 06 June 2023

Khartoum islanders ‘under siege’

Khartoum islanders ‘under siege’
  • Residents of Tuti island in the Nile reported being “under siege” amid desperate shortages

KHARTOUM: Battles raged in Sudan’s war-torn capital of Khartoum on Tuesday, witnesses said, and the residents of an island in the Nile reported being “under siege” amid desperate shortages.

Eight weeks of fighting have pitted army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan against his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who commands the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces.

A number of broken ceasefires have offered brief lulls but no respite for residents of the city, where witnesses again reported “the sound of heavy artillery fire” in northern Khartoum.

Witnesses also said there were “clashes with various types of weapons” in south Khartoum, where “the sound of explosions shook our walls.”

In the city center, at the confluence of the White Nile and Blue Nile rivers, the island of Tuti is “under total siege” by RSF forces, resident Mohammed Youssef said.

Paramilitaries have blocked the only bridge to the island and prevented residents from going by boat to other parts of the capital.

“We can’t move anyone who’s sick to hospitals off the island,” Youssef said. “If this continues for days, stores will run out of food.”

Since the fighting began on April 15, more than 1,800 people have been killed, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

Al Arabiya channel reported that the warring parties had resumed indirect ceasefire talks in Jeddah on Tuesday.

The UN says that more than a million and a half people have been displaced, both within the country and across its borders.

For those still in Khartoum and the western region of Darfur — which together have seen the worst of the fighting — the situation is growing increasingly dire.

“We face a massive humanitarian crisis that is only going to get worse with the collapse of the economy, collapse of the health care system,” the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned.

The danger will increase with “the flood season fast approaching and the looming hunger crisis and disease outbreaks that now are becoming more inevitable.”

Sudan’s annual rainy season begins in June, and medics have repeatedly warned that it threatens to make parts of country inaccessible, raising the risks of malaria, cholera and water-borne diseases.

How neglect of health and hygiene issues deepens gender inequality in Middle East displacement camps

How neglect of health and hygiene issues deepens gender inequality in Middle East displacement camps
Updated 07 June 2023

How neglect of health and hygiene issues deepens gender inequality in Middle East displacement camps

How neglect of health and hygiene issues deepens gender inequality in Middle East displacement camps
  • Poor access to hygiene products impacts the lives of millions in the world’s conflict and crisis zones
  • Camp overcrowding “can lead to a lack of dignity and privacy, which can also impact mental health”

LONDON: Every month, women and girls living in camps for displaced people face a common challenge — one that, despite being a natural occurrence, disrupts their daily lives in everything from queuing for meals to participating in social life.

Long a relatively neglected health issue, aid agencies say that poor access to menstrual hygiene management products impacts the lives of millions in the world’s crisis-hit regions, deepening gender inequality.

“The lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and facilities can be a significant barrier to the participation of displaced women and girls in training programs and other activities,” said Samara Atassi, CEO and co-founder of Souriyat Across Borders, a women-led charity that supports refugees and internally displaced people in Jordan, Syria and the UK.

Insufficient access to such products and facilities often forces women and girls to resort to “unhygienic practices, such as using dirty rags, leaves or even sand to manage their periods,” Atassi told Arab News.

Social stigma and embarrassment often pose an additional challenge, leading to “isolation and a sense of shame,” taking a toll on their mental wellbeing, she said. Overcrowding in camps in particular “can lead to a lack of dignity and privacy, which can also impact their mental health.” 

Further exacerbating the problem are issues such as inadequate access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene facilities. 

A woman sits outside a tent at a camp for those displaced by conflict in the countryside near Syria’s northern city of Raqqa. (AFP/File)

These conditions “can make it difficult to manage menstrual hygiene, further increasing the risk of infections and other health problems,” Sahar Yassin, Oxfam MENA regional gender advocacy adviser, told Arab News.

“Period poverty” is defined as a lack of access to menstrual products, education, hygiene facilities, waste management, or a combination of these.

In 2019, experts from academic institutions, NGOs, governments, UN organizations and elsewhere came together to form the Global Menstrual Collective to research the issue. It defined menstrual health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, in relation to the menstrual cycle.”

It noted that people should have access to information about menstruation, life changes and hygiene practices, the ability to care for themselves during menstruation, as well as access to water, sanitation and hygiene services.

It also highlighted the importance of the ability to receive a diagnosis for menstrual cycle disorders and access to health care, a positive, supportive environment in which to make informed decisions, and the ability to participate in all aspects of life, such as going to work and school.

Period poverty affects an estimated 500 million people worldwide — but is perhaps more keenly felt by those who have been forcibly displaced from their homes, or those reaching puberty while living in overcrowded and poorly equipped camp settings.

The UN Refugee Agency estimates that women and girls account for about 50 percent of any displaced or stateless population.

At the end of 2021, the Middle East and North Africa accounted for about 16 million forcibly displaced and stateless people, with the largest numbers fleeing conflict in Syria and Yemen, according to the UNHCR figures.

However, the reproductive health of women and girls in refugee and internal displacement camps continues to face neglect by donors. A 2019 survey by UNHCR found that just 55 percent of women’s needs were met with regard to menstruation products.

Nicola Banks, advocacy manager at the UK-based charity Action for Humanity, told Arab News that the UK had recently reduced “funding for its flagship program on sexual and reproductive health, Women’s Integrated Sexual Health,” which supports marginalized populations in Asia and Africa.

“Cuts to SRHR (sexual and reproductive health and rights) programs ... could result in reduced access to menstrual hygiene products, education and reproductive health services, potentially exacerbating period poverty,” Banks said.

A displaced Iraqi woman who fled Mosul sits with her child as they wait to enter Syria. (AFP/File)

During humanitarian crises, relief and aid efforts are chiefly focused on what are considered the most immediate needs — food, shelter and medicine — while menstrual hygiene products are often ignored, according to a report published in September 2022 by the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA.

Another critical challenge to menstrual hygiene management is a lack of education, which can lead to misconceptions about menstruation, further perpetuating stigma and shame, said Atassi of Souriyat Across Borders.

Owing to this pervasive sense of stigma and shame, many girls aged 10-18 in refugee camps in Turkiye continue to have limited access to accurate information about menstruation, meaning few are fully informed before reaching menarche, or the first menstrual cycle, according to the UNFPA report.

The study, “Menstrual hygiene management among refugee women and girls in Turkiye,” emphasized that this important yet vulnerable population lacked a complete and accurate conception of menstruation, with the main source of information being the mother or another female family member.



A 2019 UNHCR study found that only 55 percent of women’s needs were met in regard to menstruation products.

Oxfam’s Yassin says that this lack of education, combined with period poverty, “is closely linked to gender-based violence in the MENA region, where the cultural taboo surrounding menstruation precludes women and girls from discussing it openly, leading to misinformation and/or lack of information.”

Forms of gender-based violence, or GBV, linked to menstruation include “early marriage, lack of privacy, safety, and sexual harassment,” she said.

To conceal evidence of their menstruation, women in displacement and refugee camps often find themselves forced to venture alone to secluded areas, which exposes them to the potential for sexual violence. But the threat is also present in toilet spaces inside the camps.

A 2021 statement by Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, revealed that “one in five refugees or internally displaced women have faced sexual violence,” adding that the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated the issue.

Syrian-Kurdish displaced women stand behind a wire fence at the Qushtapa refugee camp. (AFP/File)

“In many cases, GBV is a result of violations of SRHR, such as female genital mutilation/cutting, child marriage, intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence,” said Banks of Action for Humanity.

“While education, empowerment, and ending violence are critical components of gender equality, they cannot be addressed in isolation from SRHR.”

For Oxfam’s Yassin, “by addressing period poverty and providing better menstrual hygiene management infrastructure and accessible facilities, we can not only promote gender equality and prevent gender-based violence but also support women’s and girls’ health, economic empowerment and well-being.”

Despite efforts by several NGOs and UN agencies to alleviate the burdens caused by period stigma and poverty, menstrual hygiene management remains a largely unaddressed issue in refugee and displacement camps.

“As an organization that is committed to empowering women, we recognize the importance of providing comprehensive sexual education,” said Atassi of Souriyat Across Borders. “Unfortunately, we currently do not have an education project inside the IDPs camps. 

“However, we strive to support women’s health and hygiene needs through all our relief campaigns.

“Even in the emergency response situations, such as during the (Feb. 6 Syria-Turkiye) earthquakes ... we prioritized the inclusion of women’s hygiene baskets in our relief efforts.

“We believe that by addressing women’s basic needs, we can help them feel supported, safe and empowered.”