Anger against Lebanon's banks is justified, legitimate and progressive

Anger against Lebanon's banks is justified, legitimate and progressive
7 min read
20 Jan, 2020
Comment: Attacks on Lebanese banks have been portrayed as irresponsible and 'thuggish', but they too, participate in a corrupt system that has entrenched the country for decades, writes Nizar Hassan.
Corruption is deeply ingrained in the Lebanese political machine [AFP]
The recent violence against banks in Beirut has been met with serious concern. Some onlookers are afraid of the mainstreaming of rioting and chaos, while others consider these tactics of protest to be "thuggish" - with all the classist implications that carries - and others still, argue that these actions are counterproductive. 

I beg to differ. These attacks are first, a valid response to much more impactful violence by the banks and the state, taking the form of arbitrary control over people's money on one hand, and a violent repression of protesters by riot police and security forces on the other.

"The real violence is that of the authorities, everything else is self-defense," reads a photo that spread on social media after the recent events.

Anyone observing the situation in Lebanon over the last three months cannot disagree. Since day one of the uprising, the approach of security forces has been to employ a heavy hand, most painfully manifested in the excessive use of military-grade tear gas, the beating of protesters, the attacks on the press documenting the violence, and unjustifiable detentions in large numbers. Since just last Friday, about 100 were detained (and since released), including foreign workers in a restaurant who happened to be in the area.

It is also highly symbolic that the state considered the destruction of bank facades worthy of an iron-fisted crackdown, and these arbitrary detentions. It shows which interests are considered to be a red line, and which symbols are untouchable. So beyond defending the violence itself in its relativity to the violence of the powers that be, I believe that the anti-bank violence serves the progressive cause.

If the uprising is against Lebanon's ruling oligarchy, then few deserve the title of oligarch better than the bankers

First, the modest attack on the banks crystalises the real conflict of interest in Lebanon. If the uprising is against Lebanon's ruling oligarchy, then few deserve the title of oligarch better than the bankers.

It is not only that banks have been the main beneficiaries of the flawed post-war Lebanese economic model, accumulating tens of billions in profit by funding a corrupt political elite. They have also played an active role in preventing progressive change in the country.

Banks could be understood as the interest group with the most influence on Lebanon's economic policy. They are organically linked to political leadership not merely as allies, but as partners.

According to one study, four out of the top 10 banks have more than 70 percent of their shares attributed to crony capital. And when calls emerged for a policy to restrict their profiteering, they were able to prevent it. In 2014, the banks went on strike to stop the government from increasing the tax on interest profit for bank deposits by two percent, up to a still very low seven percent.

Another dramatic example was when Ali Hassan Khalil, the former minister of finance, hinted in an interview with a local newspaper that debt restructuring was on the table.

Any economist or follower of public finances in Lebanon knows that the repayment of public debt has become impossible to imagine with interest rates around 15 percent, and the annual payment causes a heavy deficit in the budget, and so the banks were quick to denounce the comments.

Soon after, an economic decision-making summit was called for by the president in the presence of the central bank governor and a representative of commercial banks, and Khalil himself was tasked with making a speech assuring that debt restructuring was off the table.

When the Lebanese uprising started, banks shut their doors on the pretext of a shortage in liquidity, causing a run on the dollars that had not been significant, and therefore causing further depreciation in the value of the Lebanese Pound in a highly dollarized economy.

This depreciation has now reached around 40 percent in the money market, while the official exchange rate of the central bank remains pegged.

The banks then took a further step, and imposed extremely regressive capital control measures. They are now allowing families and workers to withdraw a mere $200 per week on average, making the payment of basic necessities a struggle to many.

The population is watching their savings and salaries evaporate in real value, and their need for cash ignored

As for small businesses whose continuity depends on imports, the capital controls have put many of them in jeopardy or out of business, causing high numbers of reported job losses.

In basic terms, the banks are causing lower purchasing power, lower economic activity, and an increasing demand for the dollars that exacerbates the vicious cycle.

You would expect a sovereign state to intervene to protect the weakest and the middle class; but not in Lebanon. The central bank governor has disowned any responsibility, arguing that any official capital control measures should come through a parliament-passed law.

But parliamentarians are busy considering other laws that can buy political support and make it seem like the situation will change. When protesters prevented parliament from meeting based on its inadequate agenda, the alternative was total inaction. Since then, Lebanon's new prime minister Hassan Diab has appointed a purportedly "technocratic" cabinet of 20 ministers, though its policies are unlikely to bring reform. 

Meanwhile, the population is watching their savings and salaries evaporate in real value, and their need for cash ignored. They are waiting for long hours in queues at their local branches, many of them reaching the desk only to be told there are no more US dollars available for the day.

Isn't this violence? And shouldn't the people fight against it when labour organisations are controlled by the political and business elite, and the state is complicit in misery?

The battle against the political elite and the banks is one. They are not separate entities, but allies which together form a major part of the ruling class in Lebanon. If the tools of power are weapons and money, then banks are the part of the ruling class that controls the economy, and decides what happens to people's money. 

The weapons, meanwhile, are in a duopoly over violence by the state and Hezbollah, with the latter only entering internal battles very selectively, while the former is empowered by the political green light to crack down on a movement when it goes against the interest of Hezbollah and other ruling parties.

The attacks on banks are therefore, are an attack on the ruling elite. As we say in the local dialect, it's pinching the elite on "the hand that causes pain".

But this is not the only reason this action supports the cause for progressive change. The attacks have also created room for discourse where the wrongdoings' of banks and security forces are weighed against the protesters' actions, revealing their disproportionate damage.

The attacks on banks are therefore, are an attack on the ruling elite

They have also helped prevent the rise of other violent discourses that divide people along sectarian lines, or scapegoat refugees and migrants. This threat is real in Lebanon today, the effort being led by the infamous foreign minister and leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Gebran Bassil, who sees no issue in blaming livelihood deterioration on Syrian refugees.

We're at a very sensitive moment historically, where a vacuum of discourse exists, and it's either the Left or the Right that can win.

The centrist promise for change is only a renewal of the status-quo with less corruption, which makes it unpopular in revolutionary time.

Progressive movements should therefore endorse this wave of retaliation against the oligarchs, even if it contradicts their usual techniques of action.

In the end, the 'rioters' did not cause any damage whatsoever to the shops in Hamra where they broke the banks' facades. Only the banks were targeted, often symbolically using state's public property to attack its business ally.

These are not the riots that should be drawing criticism, especially for those concerned about civil strife. They do not create social divisions; they bring people together against a common enemy, without causing harm to others.

If our compass is what's moral and what's politically strategic, then these actions are a valid tool to push us in the right direction.

Nizar Hassan is a Lebanese organiser, researcher and podcaster based in Beirut. He is a co-founder of the progressive political movement LiHaqqi, he researches workers rights and social movements, and co-hosts The Lebanese Politics Podcast.