Man who took hostages demanding his own money becomes public hero in Lebanon

Public rallies around gunman who surrendered after bank agreed to give him funds for father’s medical bills

An armed man has emerged as an unlikely hero in Lebanon after holding hostages in a central Beirut bank and demanding access to his own money – a move that generated broad public support.

Brandishing a rifle and threatening to douse himself with petrol, Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, entered the Federal Bank branch about noon on Thursday and insisted on withdrawing part of his frozen savings of $210,000 (£172,000) to help pay for his father’s hospital bill.

Like nearly all Lebanese, the hostage taker’s funds have been off limits for more than two years. Banks, stricken by an economic crisis, have allowed depositors only token withdrawals of dollars each month that are insufficient to meet the most basic of needs.

News of the siege was quick to reach all parts of a country where nearly 80% of the population are now considered impoverished after the imposition of informal capital controls. Scenes of a defiant figure holding a bank to ransom resonated with hundreds of thousands of people held hostage by a staggering economic collapse that has crippled Lebanon and potentially wiped out billions of dollars in savings.

Soldiers and police who gathered near the bank as the siege unravelled have had their salaries reduced more than twentyfold since early 2020, with many now earning the equivalent of $70 a month. Bystanders spoke of their support for the audacious act, which many seemed to admire, despite the fact it closed down much of Beirut’s Hamra district.

A customer shouts her support outside the bank where Bassam al-Sheik Hussein was demanding his own money.
A customer shouts her support outside the bank where Bassam al-Sheik Hussein was demanding his own money. Photograph: Hussein Malla/AP

“He’s not even a real robber,” said Ghassan Moula, in the street next to the bank. “He’s only asking for what is his. Our dear leaders sent all their billions to Swiss banks with the help of the central bank, and we’re all left to suffer. All of Lebanon wants to do this.”

By evening, the gunman’s stance appeared to have worked, with the bank agreeing to give him $30,000 after he rejected an earlier offer of $10,000. As night drew near, he allowed his hostages to be fed by a local restaurant, which delivered food to the bank’s door. Shortly afterwards he surrendered to police.

No one will say he did the wrong thing,” said Ahmad Yatoum, another bystander. “Desperate people do desperate things. We are all like him, even the soldiers and the riot police liked him.”

The bank siege was the second of its kind this year, after another angry depositor doused customers in a regional bank with fuel in January and demanded his savings. He too was successful. Such acts of defiance have, however, been rare in Lebanon despite the profound and continuing suffering of its population.

Remittances from relatives abroad have long been a lifeline for Lebanese citizens, but with the local currency still falling, a political imbroglio continuing and no real sign that leaders are prepared to meet probity conditions that are essential for global rescue packages, they have been vital to keeping the country together.

Many depositors are restricted to receiving as little as $200 a month from the bank in addition to a hybrid version of the local currency, known as lollars, which is dispensed at about one-third of the market rate. There are widespread fears that dollar deposits in banks may be rendered worthless if and when a financial solution is found.

Most goods and services are now being sold at dollar values, which makes the availability of the currency even more essential to those who do not have access to offshore accounts or a ready flow of income from outside Lebanon.

“Hyperinflation has ruined us,” said George Haddad, a baker. “Even the most basic things in life like bread are out of the reach of many.”