Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein looks through the bank's window in Beirut, Lebanon during the hostage standoff on Thursday. He surrended after several hours of negotiations in exchange for a portion of his savings.
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Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein looks through the bank's window in Beirut, Lebanon during the hostage standoff on Thursday. He surrended after several hours of negotiations in exchange for a portion of his savings.

A man who held multiple people hostage inside a Beirut bank in an attempt to get access to his own savings was hailed as a hero in Lebanon, which is suffering from its worst economic crisis in modern history.

Bassam al-Sheikh Hussein, a 42-year-old food delivery driver, held up to 10 people hostage during the seven-hour standoff last Thursday, according to The Associated Press. He entered the Federal Bank with a shotgun and canister of gasoline, fired three warning shots, locked himself in with several bank employees and customers and threatened to set himself on fire unless he was allowed to withdraw his savings — which he said he needed to pay his father's medical bills.

Like many people in Lebanon, Hussein had been unable to access his life savings because of the strict limits the government put on withdrawals of foreign currency assets — effectively freezing them — when the economic crisis started in 2019. He had some $210,000 trapped in the bank, the AP reported.

The incident ended hours of negotiations later, and without any injuries, when Hussein was arrested after surrendering in exchange for what his lawyer said was $35,000 of his money. His wife told reporters outside that he "did what he had to do," while his brother called him "a decent man" who "takes what he has from his own pocket to give to others."

An angry bank client speaks with security forces outside the bank in Beirut on Thursday.
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An angry bank client speaks with security forces outside the bank in Beirut on Thursday.

People are angry at Lebanon's government and banks

In the meantime, sympathetic bystanders gathered at the scene to show support for him and rally against Lebanon's political and financial leaders, who are widely blamed for forcing much of the country's population into poverty (the World Bank has described the situation as a "deliberate depression ... orchestrated by the country's elite").

People praised Hussein in social media posts, while some bystanders chanted, "Down with the rule of the banks!"

Nearly 80% of Lebanon's population now lives in poverty, according to Human Rights Watch. The Lebanese pound has lost 90% of its value since October 2019 and inflation has soared to a whopping 890% percent — making it hard for most people to access basic goods like food, water and health care.

On top of that, fuel shortages cause widespread electricity blackouts (which HRW says last up to 23 hours a day) and the country's strained health care system is on the verge of collapse, according to the UN.

Rami Rajeh, who was in the crowd outside the bank, tells Morning Edition's Leila Fadel that last week's incident was both symbolic and a symptom of the broader economic meltdown.

"[It] sheds light on a crisis that has dragged, where the ruling elite have shoved aside one proposal for a solution after the other — there have been four proposals that they have just put to death," he says. "And this is creating a lot of frustration, and one way that it manifests itself is in people taking matters into their own hands."

While Rajeh understands the frustration, he thinks "hero" is kind of a big title to bestow on the perpetrator.

"The reason I say that is because the next day, if you're a depositor that had money and hard currency, nothing changed for you," he adds.

In May, workers removed sections of a concrete barrier that security forces had erected in 2020 to block off the streets leading to the country's parliament building in Beirut.
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In May, workers removed sections of a concrete barrier that security forces had erected in 2020 to block off the streets leading to the country's parliament building in Beirut.

Life in Beirut, three years into the economic crisis

Rajeh says daily life in Beirut is dirtier, darker and more dangerous than it was just two or three years ago.

About half of the commercial areas that line the streets are visibly empty, and "you have to convince yourself that it's okay to walk from Point A to Point B at night because the streets are all so dark."

Rajeh says his family's income and purchasing power have diminished, so they're spending more on things like running water, electricity and medical insurance than they have in the past. The bills have increased in two ways, he adds: They're paying more for less.

It's also not uncommon to hear about patients' relatives or siblings looking for a certain medication, he says, because even if they can afford it, they probably can't find it.

Rajeh, who is a father of two, stays in Beirut because even though their family is struggling, they are able to make ends meet. He says as long as they don't feel that they are compromising their kids' safety and education, they don't plan to leave. But his vision for the country is not an optimistic one.

"I feel you can sense the air of, I don't want to say despair, but there's a lot of anger and there's a depression because it's lasted so long," he says. "There doesn't seem to be an end in sight."

This interview was conducted by Leila Fadel, produced by Ben Abrams and Shelby Hawkins and edited by John Helton.

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