The situation in Lebanon contains the main ingredients for another popular uprising: the dire economic and financial crisis; worsening food and fuel shortages; rampant corruption; and growing public disdain of the political elites. Put together, these grievances can be a potent mix leading to social unrest, as was seen with the 17 October Revolution in 2019, which was triggered by government plans to tax WhatsApp calls. This was followed by the devastating Beirut Port blast in 2020, which led to angry protests against corruption.
Some protesters targeted government buildings and ministries amid calls for accountability and justice. Such calls are ongoing albeit stalled after the partial collapse of the port’s grain silos nearly two years to the day since the massive explosion.
All it takes is one catalyst, large or small, to trigger uprisings and, potentially, revolutions. This was the case with the Arab Spring which spread across several countries in the Middle East and North Africa over a decade ago.
Anti-government sentiments were already festering in the region by the time 26-year-old Tunisian fruit and vegetable vendor Mohamed Bouazizi died after setting fire to himself. He was apparently pushed over the edge by police corruption and harassment, and his death sparked national and then regional pro-democracy uprisings.
The result was the ousting of some long-term autocrats and, in some countries, civil war. The fact that millions could empathise with Bouazizi’s plight and were also affected by high unemployment and rising living costs played a part.
This phenomenon could easily have been reignited in Beirut last week when 42-year-old Bassam Al-Sheikh Hussein felt that he had no other option but to hold up the Federal Bank demanding that he be allowed to withdraw his own money. Viral online footage emerged as Hussein, armed with a shotgun and a gas canister, threatened to self-immolate, just like Bouazizi, if his demands were not met. The tense situation soon became a hostage crisis with bank staff and customers held to ransom and warning shots fired.
The suspect was even heard ordering staff to “Call Riad Salameh. Let him come here.” Salameh is the disgraced governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank who is currently under investigation on corruption charges. Last month, security forces raided the Bank in order to arrest him, but they were unable to locate him.
As it became clear that the Hussein desperately needed to access the $210,000 in his account to help pay for his father’s medical expenses of around $10,000, some online observers likened the situation to the plot of the Hollywood movie John Q. The movie’s protagonist, played by Denzel Washington, feels compelled to take a hospital emergency room hostage in a last-ditch attempt to secure a life-saving heart transplant for his son, after being neither covered by health insurance nor eligible for government aid.
Fortunately for all involved at the bank, the near seven-hour standoff came to a bloodless end, as Hussein, surrounded by law enforcement officers, laid down his weapons and surrendered. This was after negotiators got involved and he agreed with the bank for the release of $35,000 which was to be handed to his brother in exchange for Hussein turning himself in. The understanding was that he would be freed after being interrogated.
By the time the hostage crisis was over, Hussein was a “national hero”, with crowds of supporters and sympathisers gathered outside the bank, cheering him on and applauding as he was led away by arresting officers. Chants of “Down with the rule of the banks” were heard.
This reaction is understandable, because many people in Lebanon could relate to Hussein’s predicament. Nearly all Lebanese citizens have been unable to withdraw their own money since around the time of the 2019 uprising.
The armed bank standoff wasn’t the first to take place in Lebanon this year. In January, dozens of hostages were taken at a bank in the Bekaa Valley before Abdallah Assaii successfully demanded that he be able to withdraw $50,000 from his account. Assaii was also praised as a hero by locals. However, it was Hussein’s case which attracted international attention, especially as it unfolded in real time on social media.
Although no one was hurt, things could easily have deteriorated had Hussein been killed by security forces, thereby creating a martyr-like figure around whom an entire uprising and protest movement would emerge. That’s what happened with Bouazizi in Tunisia in 2011.
Were this to happen — and it still might — it would be difficult to predict the scale and strength of the inevitable public backlash, with around 80 per cent of the population in Lebanon now living below the poverty line in a country deemed to be the angriest in the world. Such anger would be directed at the weak coalition government.
According to Lebanese news website 961, despite assurances that he would be released after being questioned, Hussein remained in custody for a few days. He went on hunger strike and reportedly threatened to hang himself unless he was released as per the agreement.
It has been reported that the bank demanded the harshest possible punishment to make an example of Hussein, but this led to a sit-in protest in front of the Justice Palace in Beirut. The lawsuit has now been dropped and the Public Prosecutor, Judge Ghassan Oweidat, has decided to release Hussein.
While the self-immolation of Bouazizi led to “copycat” incidents across the region, if the Lebanese people continue to be pushed to their limits of survival, some may find themselves imitating Assaii and Hussein and also demanding access to their own finances. If force is used by either side, that could be the catalyst for another, perhaps more serious, popular uprising. Lebanon is very close to its own Bouazizi moment.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.