"I would have never imagined that we would have to beg the banks for $ 100 ”

At bank counters, customers are suffering endless waits and humiliation for nothing more than a handful of dollars.

At 8:30 am, at the bank, the line to take a number has already started. Photo A.-M.H.

In the January cold, they are waiting their turn outside, hoping to withdraw a few hundred US dollars. It's eight o’clock in the morning. Employees are just starting to arrive. Customers are already lining up in front of the glass door of the bank so they can be the first ones to enter. Among them are retirees with savings books, young people who have lost confidence in the system, professionals used to managing their business in dollars, artisans panicked at the idea of seeing their savings go up in smoke, worried women eager to pay their monthly bills on time. Even after taking their number there is no guarantee. Only the earliest arrivals will be able to withdraw the precious foreign currencies from their account, foreign money is becoming scarcer every day, ever since the implementation of drastic banking restrictions, the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, the creation of a parallel market among money changers, and the interruption of online banking procedures. But everyone is taking the chance. One never knows.

In front of this SGBL branch in Mansouryeh, there are already about forty people, and their number is increasing by the minute. When the doors open at 8:30 a.m., customers rush in and dash towards the number dispenser. Their wait is far from over. "The dollars have not yet arrived”, says a branch official. Disappointment becomes visible on the faces. With their number in hand, customers go out to smoke a cigarette, go shopping, or go about their business. Others prefer to stay warm and wait indoors, afraid of losing their turn.

Sami, a father who plans on withdrawing 200 dollars, angrily expresses his humiliation, his bitterness, his disgust for the political class, which he believes has stolen the country’s public funds, to L’Orient-Le Jour. "We just want to live, but it's always the people who end up paying the price for their leaders’ mistakes”, says this sixty-year-old corporate director who had to leave his office for a few hours, for fear of being deprived of the savings -in dollars- he has amassed over the years. This is the first time that this man has contemplated emigration, because he thinks that “anything can happen, including losing one’s money”. Leila, a grandmother in sneakers, had repatriated all her savings from the Arab countries, where her husband used to work. She hoped to enjoy a peaceful retirement in Lebanon. And there she is, being forced to beg the banks for her own money, and waste her time endlessly waiting.

Just like the people mentioned above, the majority of depositors have placed their money in foreign currencies ever since the Lebanese pound has threatened to collapse. According to official statistics, the dollarization rate of bank deposits in Lebanon amounted to 72.9% in September 2019. This shows the lack of confidence in the national currency. But with the recent restrictions put in place by banks, obtaining foreign currency has become a real brain teaser, unless one buys dollars from a currency trader at 2,400 LL, or even 2,500 LL - according to the parallel prices of January 9 and 10; but, people are refusing to do so, as the official rate remains unchanged (between 1,515 and 1 520 LL). "What choice do we have other than standing here and waiting several times a week? Our payment cards have become useless. The ATMs no longer give out dollars, and the majority of traders and businesses insist on being paid in cash”, yells Zena, a mother waiting for her turn, a coffee mug in hand. She adds that she came to pay her bank draft in Lebanese pounds. In order to do this, she drew dollars which she exchanged into pounds on the black market, and made her payment at the official rate, which allowed her to save a significant amount of money. "Why do I have to be taken for a ride?", she asked, calling on the authorities to regulate the market and impose all transactions in the national currency.

Appalled, Georges a retiree, nods his head. "I don't even have a bank card. Only a savings book. For a week I've been leaving the bank empty-handed”, he groans. For his part, a young man who chose not to reveal his name, regrets not having withdrawn his money when he could still do so, and "keep" it at home, as many savers have done. Whereas Joseph, a mechanic, is hoping to guarantee at least a hundred dollars to pay his workman. "Am I supposed to send him home penniless, even though my work has been on hold for two months now?" he asks.

Ululations and applause

In order to combat the frustration and the wait, some tell jokes, the air is full of humor and derision. Newcomers are being "reassured": most likely they will not be getting dollars today because over a hundred people are waiting for their turn, and the quantities being delivered are limited. When contacted by L’ OLJ, the bank’s management refused to offer a statement or allow any interviews on the premises. It does, however, offer everyone a round of coffee. The customers appreciate the gesture, but do not refrain from voicing out their grievances and complaints towards the banking sector. "I have never imagined that one day we would be reduced to begging the banks for 100 dollars", says Said. “We are being disrespected and mistreated”, says yet another.

10:22. The long-awaited van has finally shown up. The bank is full of movement. Two security officers carrying a small blue bag enter the premises to the ululations and the applause of the impatient line of people. For a few moments, the atmosphere becomes more relaxed, and hope resurfaces. One of the security officers recounts with a laugh, how he was showered with rose petals and rice in a mountain village. At the bank, people thank him by offering him a cup of hot coffee. But quickly, the faces become serious again. A customer leaves the bank with $ 100. That's how much he was able to withdraw that day. "Had I known that I would be waiting all this time for 100 miserable dollars, I would have done something more useful”, he growls. According to everyone there, 100 dollars are barely enough for one day. Samira, an elderly lady, complains as well: "It is inadmissible ! Whenever I make the effort to come, either the dollars have not arrived, or there are none left.” Despite the palpable tension and the overall sense of concern, the atmosphere remains courteous. As soon as the distribution is over, the bank will magically empty of clientele, and the employees will be able to catch their breath, bracing themselves for another day of stress, nervousness and tension.

A charged atmosphere and a constant fear of "haircut"

From one bank to another, from one day to the next, the situation fluctuates and the limit set on cash withdrawals does as well. Some banks limit withdrawals to $ 200 per week while others set the ceiling to a maximum of $ 1,000 weekly. Customers who no longer trust either the political system or the banking system are rushing to the counters, denouncing the restrictions on withdrawing foreign currencies. Above all, they are afraid of being the victim of a "haircut" which would deprive them of a proportion of their money. Everywhere, the atmosphere is charged and tense because the situation keeps getting worse. The waits at the bank counters are endless. Retirees have been overcome with fatigue and anxiety. The humiliation suffered by people has led them to rebel, and to announce "survival measures" in the face of "the enormous profits that the banks are securing at exceptionally high interest charges". As expected, clashes with banking staff are increasing across the country. Some banks’ ATMs have been burned by angry protesters. "You can only make withdrawals from your own branch", is posted at the Audi Bank’s Sofil branch. This did not go down very well with a customer from the North, who is in urgent need of currency, and who refuses to draw Lebanese pounds from his dollar account at the ongoing, official rate. At Fransabank’s Hamra branch, a Syrian businessman failed to cash a large bank check in euros. "I can't even open an account so I can deposit the check”, he says uncertainly. “I have no other choice but to try other banks”. Resignation ends up taking over, "I cannot blame that poor bank worker. He is not responsible for what is going on”, smiles Maria, a customer who succeeded at withdrawing from Bank Audi Sofil after several hours of waiting.

Employees’ exhaustion and fatigue

One thing that should be agreed on is the fact that bank employees have become the collateral, as well as the direct victims of this deteriorating crisis. Exhausted, anxious, often taken to task by the clientele -to the point of verbal or even physical aggression-, they have no other choice but to hold on, torn between the instructions of their management and their customers who are suffering from overly restrictive measures. Moreover, the employees are being subjected to the same conditions as their customers. "Things are particularly difficult the day after a vacation, to the point that I have started dreading the weekends", an employee who requested anonymity told L’OLJ. She describes the rush at the counters in the aftermath of days-off, the tension that reigns throughout the day, the customers’ nervousness, the waiting areas that suddenly empty out once the dollars have run out. And all this work is done by staff who are “forced to carry out operations that they have never done before, since the online banking operations were stopped, ever since the machines are no longer dispensing dollars, that the limits of the bank cards have been lowered". Not forgetting record attendances from the early hours of the day, and that "by 9 o'clock, about 120 people are already pushing and shoving". The hardest part is "the fact that certain departments have prohibited their employees from taking their annual vacation during this time, despite the arduous nature of the work and the efforts being made", as another employee in the banking sector reports.

In this context, the management’s executives are trying their best to reduce the impact of the restrictions, to calm the panic and the anger of the people who are asking for what they are entitled to, all the while emphasizing the need to protect the banking system from any systemic risk. "We cannot make long-term commitments to customers, [we cannot] give them loose and unsecured promises", said a manager who preferred to remain anonymous. "We are going into a totally new phase however", she said, hoping that all this commotion around the banks will lead to "positive changes". But for now, the staff’s mission remains “to understand and support depositors”, to “acknowledge their fear of [a] haircut”, to “respect their desire to diversify their banks”, to "put limits on them by explaining to them why they cannot withdraw all their cash money", and "to help those whose children are studying abroad". "This requires monstrous efforts and causes great fatigue", she says, because the phone keeps on ringing, and questions are pouring in. And if "part of the clientele sometimes benefits from the system", more and more people "are really suffering from the crisis" and are experiencing late payments. Which "banks can tolerate" to some extent.

“The situation is dramatic. It has almost become similar to begging ", said a senior bank executive who preferred not to reveal his identity. He notes that it has turned into "a generalized erroneous behavior" , and points the finger at all the players within the system. "Beginning with a political class which stole from the state’s treasuries, then the governor of the Central Bank and its financial engineering, then the banks all around the country, until the noble citizen who waited too long to -finally- rebel and revolt against a political class that made him sink so low."

* First names have been changed.

(This article was originally published in french in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 11th of January 2020)

In the January cold, they are waiting their turn outside, hoping to withdraw a few hundred US dollars. It's eight o’clock in the morning. Employees are just starting to arrive. Customers are already lining up in front of the glass door of the bank so they can be the first ones to enter. Among them are retirees with savings books, young people who have lost confidence in the system,...