HomePoliticsBriefingA vicious cycle

A vicious cycle

Of banks closing once again, a cholera outbreak in Lebanon, more bank heists, maritime border negotiations with Israel coming to an end, continued protests in Iran, death of ISIS leaders, political crisis in Iraq and violence in Israel and Palestine. Your weekly briefing from Lebanon.

Banks across Lebanon temporarily closed after a string of holdups by depositors trying to access their money. Photo: Nicholas Frakes, NOW

For a second time, Lebanon’s banks announced that they would be closing indefinitely after more depositors held up branches throughout the country in a desperate attempt to gain access to their own money.

That was on Thursday evening. 

Then, on Monday, the banks announced that they would be opening up again on Tuesday.

So what was the point of saying that they would be closed indefinitely when they were basically closed for only one day, since Monday is a holiday, and nothing has really changed in that time? Were they looking to collectively punish depositors for the heists? Was it a form of protest against the heists? Or was it just an attempt to try and break up the momentum of the almost daily heists?

Whatever the answer is, it is not likely to accomplish anything except compound people’s frustrations with the banks even further.

People are not holding up the banks just for the fun of it or because they want to get as much money as possible. They are doing it because they have been forced into this situation by the banks themselves as well as by the actions, and inaction, of Lebanon’s politicians.

The capital controls put in place by the banks in 2019 basically froze people out of their own accounts. These should have been temporary measures while the politicians worked on a solution to the crisis. Granted, it should have been the politicians who put the capital control laws in place from the start, but I digress.

It is nearing the end of 2022 and nothing has changed. The government still has not passed its own capital control laws, much less any reforms that might start pulling the country out of crisis.

It does not matter if the banks close for a week or a day, the population is desperate, and depositors will continue holding up banks so that they can pay for their basic needs and take care of their families.

Until reforms are passed and money from the IMF and abroad starts coming in, Lebanon is likely to be stuck in a cycle of heists and closures.

In Lebanon

Speaking of heists: Last week, there were around half a dozen or so heists, with four holdups on October 5th alone,  leading to the banks announcing their “indefinite” closure. .

These four holdups perfectly encapsulated the dire situations many are experiencing throughout the country.

In the southern city of Tyre, Ali Hodroj went into a Byblos Bank branch armed and demanded $40,000 of his trapped savings so that he could pay off outstanding loans. He received around $9,000 worth in Lebanese lira, which was given to his family when he turned himself in.

In the east of the country, in Chtoura, Ali al-Sahli demanded $24,000 of his own money so that his son, who is living in Ukraine, can pay rent and tuition fees. According to the activist group Depositors’ Outcry, al-Sahli had offered to sell one of his kidneys in order to pay for his son’s expenses, since the bank continued to prevent him from transferring the money. Al-Sahli was unable to get any of his money before he was arrested by security forces.

In Hazmieh, close to Lebanon’s capital Beirut, the former Lebanese ambassador to Turkey, Georges Siam, staged a sit-in at the Intercontinental Bank to demand some of his locked savings. He negotiated with the bank until the evening, but it was not clear if he received any of his money.

Finally, in Tripoli, some workers from the Qadisha Electricity Company broke into a branch of the First National Bank to protest the bank deducting fees from their late salary payments.

A political stunt or legitimate protest?: One of the most notable holdups from the previous week was that of MP Cynthia Zarazir, who walked into a branch of Byblos Bank near Beirut to demand $8,500 from her savings for an upcoming medical procedure.

The MP, who is part of the reformist opposition bloc in Parliament, came to the bank with a lawyer who helped her negotiate with the bank for several hours before she received the $8,500.

Zarazir’s actions also stirred up some debate online, with some defending her actions, saying that it was her legal right to demand her money, while others said that as an MP, she should not be allowed to hold up a bank.

There is also the question of status. She is an MP who was able to bring in a lawyer to help her argue her case, while others cannot afford such a luxury. So it begs the question, would Zarazir have gotten her money if she was not an MP? Maybe. But it is safe to say that her situation was different from the others that held up banks that same day.

Out from the cold: Sali Hafez, the woman who became a national hero for many when she held up a bank to demand $13,000 of her own money for her sister’s cancer treatments, turned herself in to the authorities last week and was released on bail along with a travel ban.

Hafez had been hiding out in the Bekaa Vally for several weeks after she held up a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut.

According to Hafez’s lawyer, the judge reduced the original bail of five million lira to one million lira given that the family was spending its money on her sister’s medical expenses.

After leaving the Justice Palace, Hafez insinuated that the bank should give her the rest of her money or she might hold them up once more.

A medical crisis: Lebanon has seen its first cholera cases since 1993 after an outbreak in neighboring Syria started to spill over into Lebanon.

So far, over a dozen cases have been recorded in Lebanon, though they have been contained in the north of the country.

In response, the Ministry of Health has put out information on how people can protect themselves from the virus, but it is unclear if the country’s ailing medical sector and decapitated infrastructure will be able to prevent a further outbreak throughout the country.

Lebanon is working with international health organizations to help combat the spread of cholera.

Test, test: Israel gave the green light for Energean to test the flow of gas as it prepares to begin extracting the fuel in the disputed Karish Field in the lead-up to a possible deal between Lebanon and Israel over their maritime borders.

While these tests were taking place, Lebanon was waiting for the final draft of the maritime border deal to be delivered. This deal, which has been years in the making, would finally demarcate Lebanon and Israel’s maritime borders. But, more importantly, it would drastically decrease the likelihood of conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, as Israel would be given the Karish Field while Lebanon would get the Qana Prospect. Hezbollah has previously threatened to attack the offshore drilling rig if Israel attempted to extract the natural gas in the Karish Field before a deal was made.

However, a deal means nothing until both parties sign on the dotted line and, while Lebanon has sent its final offer to Israel, saying that negotiations are over, Israel has yet to accept it. Lebanon had demanded some changes to the final text of the deal, which Israel categorically rejected. So it is now up to Israel as to whether or not they will approve of the deal. If they reject it, the chances of conflict will dramatically skyrocket.

Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz has expressed support for a deal, but has also warned Hezbollah and Lebanon that Israel would respond in force if Hezbollah attacks the drilling rig.

In the region

The cost of protesting: Iranians throughout the country are heading into their fourth week of demonstrations against the government following the death of Mahsa Amini, also known by her Kurdish name Zhina, after she was arrested by the country’s morality police for not wearing her hijab properly.

However, these protests have come at a cost. Anywhere from 60 to 100 people have been killed as a result, though an exact number is impossible to determine, with the country’s internet cuts and nearly 2,000 people in custody.

Some of those arrested include journalists, activists, lawyers, and even their friends and family.

Also, students at universities throughout Iran have been beaten when they came out in droves to support the protests.

Despite the brutal crackdown by the government, the protests show no signs of stopping anytime soon.

“Innocent”: Israel has cleared itself of any wrongdoing following the death of a seven-year-old Palestinian boy whose family said that he “died of fear” after he encountered Israel’s security forces.

According to the family of Rayan Suleiman, the boy was chased by Israeli soldiers when he was walking home from school and collapsed suddenly after soldiers appeared at his home.

The United States, European Union and United Nations have demanded an investigation into the boy’s death given that, according to the family, Suleiman had no preexisting health problems.

Israel closed its investigation into the incident, saying that its soldiers acted accordingly and said that there was no wrongdoing.

Rising tensions: Since the start of the year, there has been increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis, with around 100 Palestinians being killed by the Israeli Defense Forces so far.

Most recently, a shooting at a checkpoint killed one Israeli soldier and wounded others, leading to a search by Israeli authorities for those responsible.

Israel’s military has performed almost nightly raids in the occupied West Bank, often leading to deaths and injuries, of both targeted individuals or groups, or protesters and civilians that happened to be in the area.

A brutal killing: A gay Palestinian man was found decapitated in the occupied Palestinian city of Hebron over the weekend, according to the police.

Ahmad Abu Murkhiyeh had left his home city of Hebron after word of his sexuality started to spread and he began to fear for his safety.

It is unclear why he returned to the city, as friends and family stated that he was worried that he would be targeted if he ever returned.

One suspect has been arrested so far.

A dire situation: The UN’s special envoy for Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, has warned that the situation in Iraq is “highly volatile” as the country continues to grapple with a political crisis that has brought it to a standstill.

Iraq held early elections last October in the wake of a popular uprising but, following the elections, the newly elected officials have not been able to form a government, with MPs affiliated with the prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigning in protest.

Since then, supporters of al-Sadr have taken to the streets to demonstrate the situation and to demand new elections.

There has been no movement on the political end nor indications that there will be a solution to the ongoing crisis anytime soon.

More ISIS leaders killed: The US killed several ISIS leaders in Syria in back-to-back raids as part of a continued attempt to weaken the terrorist organization.

Abu Hashum al-Umawi, a deputy wali, was killed along with another senior ISIS official in an airstrike, while Rakkan Wahid al-Shammri, a notorious smuggler for the group, and another of his colleagues during a helicopter raid in a village near Qamishli.

Over the summer, the US killed Hani Ahmad al-Kurdi, a senior ISIS bombmaker who was also known as the “Wali of Raqqa,” following the killing of the group’s leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi.

What we’re reading

‘Boat of death’: As Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens, more and more desperate people have paid thousands of dollars to be smuggled by boat to Europe. Recently, one of those vehicles sank, killing over 100 people. I spoke with the family of one of the victims about the days leading up to the fateful journey and what has happened since.

Who wants to be president?: Lebanon’s current president, Michel Aoun, will be leaving office at the end of the month, creating an urgent need to elect his successor. However, there has been no agreement on who that should be. NOW’s David Isaly took a look at the ongoing battle over who will be Lebanon’s next president.

The hypocritical left: The progressive left often likes to champion the struggles of the oppressed around the world. However, Mohammad el-Sahily argues, when it comes to Iran, there is a certain hypocrisy at play.

Putting a stop to protests: Iran’s protests are entering their fourth week now with no signs that they are going to stop anytime soon. The Washington Post’s Joyce Sohyun Lee, Stefanie Le, Atthar Mirza and Babak Dehghanpisheh looked at how the Iranian government is trying to shut the protests down.

A song for the people: What makes a song exemplify a mass protest movement? For the Iran protests, this is Shervin Hajipour’s “Baraye,” meaning because of in Farsi. The Washington Post’s Miriam Berger and Sanam Mahoozi wrote about how this song became the anthem of the ongoing protests.


Podcasts: Médéa and Mouin get a bit meta in this week’s episode of Sarde after dinner where the two speak with each other about migration from Lebanon, what is next for Sarde, the presidential elections, women’s rights in the Arab world and more.

Ronnie Chatah has a long episode of the Beirut Banyan for listeners this week, where he speaks with journalist Rawad Taha and oil and gas policy expert Laury Haytayan about topics ranging from Cynthia Zarazir and her “holdup” at the bank, maritime border negotiations, the presidential elections, Hezbollah’s grip on power and more in this over two-hour episode.

Until next week, follow NOW Lebanon on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn, and subscribe to our weekly newsletter. And stay safe.