The situation in Lebanon contains the main ingredients of another popular uprising: the serious economic and financial crisis; worsening food and fuel shortages; rampant corruption; and growing public contempt for political elites. Together, these grievances can be a potent mix leading to social unrest, as seen with the October 17 revolution in 2019, which was sparked by government plans to tax WhatsApp calls. This was followed by the devastating Beirut port explosion in 2020, which led to angry protests against corruption.
Some protesters targeted government buildings and ministries amid calls for accountability and justice. Those appeals are ongoing, although they have stalled after grain silos at the port partially collapsed nearly two years to the day since the massive explosion.
All it takes is a catalyst, big or small, to spark uprisings and, potentially, revolutions. Such was the case with the Arab Spring that swept through several countries in the Middle East and North Africa more than a decade ago.
Anti-government sentiments were already simmering in the region when Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable merchant, died after setting himself on fire. He was apparently pushed to the limit by corruption and police harassment, and his death sparked national and then regional pro-democracy uprisings.
The result was the ousting of some long-time autocrats and, in some countries, civil war. The fact that millions of people could relate to Bouazizi’s plight and were also affected by high unemployment and the rising cost of living played a role.
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This phenomenon could easily have been rekindled in Beirut last week when Bassam Al-Sheikh Hussein, 42, felt he had no choice but to hold back the Federal Bank to demand that he be allowed to withdraw his own money. Images went viral online as Hussein, armed with a shotgun and a gas canister, threatened to self-immolate, as did Bouazizi, if his demands were not met. The tense situation quickly turned into a hostage situation, with bank staff and customers held hostage and warning shots fired.
The suspect was even heard ordered staff at “Call Riad Salameh. Let him come here.” Salameh is the disgraced governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon which is currently under investigation for corruption. Last month, security forces raided the bank to arrest him, but they could not locate him.
As it became clear that the Hussein desperately needed access to the $210,000 in his account to help pay for his father’s medical bills of around $10,000, some online observers assimilated the situation at the plot of the hollywood film John Q. The film’s protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, feels compelled to hold a hospital emergency room hostage in a last-ditch attempt to obtain a life-saving heart transplant for his son, after neither being covered by medical health insurance or eligible for government assistance.
Fortunately for everyone involved at the bank, the nearly seven-hour standoff ended without bloodshed, as Hussein, surrounded by law enforcement officers, laid down his weapons and walked away. rendered. This was after negotiators got involved and he agreed with the bank to release $35,000 which was to be given to his brother in exchange for Hussein surrendering. It was understood that he would be released after questioning.
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By the end of the hostage crisis, Hussein was a ‘national hero’, with crowds of supporters and well-wishers gathered outside the bank, cheering and applauding him as he was led away by officers who arrested him . Chants of “Down with the rule of the banks” were heard.
This reaction is understandable, as many people in Lebanon could relate to Hussein’s predicament. Almost all Lebanese citizens have been unable to withdraw their own money since the time of the 2019 uprising.
The armed banking standoff was not the first to take place in Lebanon this year. In January, dozens of hostages were taken from a bank in the Bekaa Valley before Abdallah Assaii successfully demanded that he be allowed to withdraw $50,000 from his account. Assaii was also hailed as a hero by locals. However, it was Hussein’s case that captured international attention, especially as it unfolded in real time on social media.
Although no one was hurt, things could have easily gone downhill had Hussein been killed by security forces, creating a martyr-like figure around which a whole movement of uprising and protest would emerge. This is what happened with Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2011.
If this happened – and it could still happen – it would be difficult to predict the scale and strength of the inevitable public reaction, with around 80% of the Lebanese population currently living below the poverty line in a country under consideration. as the most angry. in the world. Such anger would be directed at the weak coalition government.
According to the Lebanese news site 961, despite assurances that he would be released after questioning, Hussein remained in detention for a few days. He continued hunger-strike and allegedly threatened to hang himself if he was not released in accordance with the agreement.
It was reported that the bank demanded the harshest possible punishment for making an example of Hussein, but this led to a protest sit-in in front of the Beirut courthouse. The legal action has now been dropped and the Public Prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, has decided to Release Hussein.
While Bouazizi’s self-immolation led to “copycat“of incidents across the region, if the Lebanese people continue to be pushed to their limits of survival, some may find themselves emulating Assaii and Hussein and also demanding access to their own finances. If force is used on either side, this could be the catalyst for another, possibly more serious, popular uprising. Lebanon is very close to its own Bouazizi moment.
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