A Lebanese man who robbed a bank to withdraw his own money has been hailed as a hero in Lebanon, where citizens are furious at capital controls that prevent them from accessing their savings amid a financial meltdown.
Abdallah Assaii, a 37-year-old cafe owner, is accused of holding seven employees of a BBAC bank hostage in the town of Jeb Jannine in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley last week, dousing them with gasoline and threatening to set them on fire unless they provided him with $50,000 from his account.
Following his arrest, he went on a hunger strike in protest, according to his family.
The country of six million people is experiencing the worst financial crisis in its history, with a currency that has lost around 90% of its value, citizens’ savings stuck in banks and a skilled workforce emigrating to mass.
It has been described by the World Bank as one of the worst the world has seen since the 1850s.
Lebanon’s current economic crisis is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class and a sectarian political system that thrives on clientelism and nepotism.
Severe fuel shortages have led to crippling power outages and hours of waiting at gas stations.
Many Lebanese were ready to excuse Assaii’s extreme actions, with members of his community saying he needed his money to pay for his cafe expenses.
According to his family, his coffee was robbed for up to $15,000 a few weeks before the incident, and he also owed 200 million Lebanese pounds (about $8,700) for purchases from a fruit and vegetable stand he he exploited.
The bank had refused his repeated requests for checks in the week before Tuesday’s incident, his lawyer said.
“Abdallah managed to do what no one could do in all of Lebanon,” an NGO worker in Assaii’s hometown told The National newspaper. “He didn’t steal the money. It was his.
Assaii supporters gathered after Friday prayers at Jeb Jannine.
“We ask the state to release Abdallah Assaii because he is within the law,” local imam Alaa Baalbaki said. “We are all Abdallah Assaii.”
“I’m not against people taking their money, no one is saying what’s going on is good, but it’s not the fault of the employees at the branch,” said an anonymous BBAC employee who was the one of Assaii’s hostages to the local SBI news site.
“Yes [people] want their rights, they must go to the [bank’s] main offices and politicians. They are behind what is happening in the country,” she said.