A 28-year-old architect turned bank ‘robber’ becomes a ‘national hero’
Sally Hafez held up a BLOM Bank branch office with a toy gun withdrawing US$ 13,000 from her family’s account of US$ 20,000 to pay for her sister’s cancer treatment. Later, pretending to be pregnant, she eluded police. From her hiding place, she says: “We are a country of mafias.”
Beirut (AsiaNews) – Astounding! No other word can describe Sally Hafez’s action. The 28-year-old activist has become the darling of many Lebanese after she pulled a heist at a branch of the Banque du Liban et d’Outremer (BLOM), taking US$ 13,000 out of her sister's account.
In October 2019, commercial banks arbitrarily and illegally imposed capital controls overnight on bank accounts.
“We are a country of mafias. If you are not a wolf, the wolves will eat you,” the interior designer turned national hero told Reuters, speaking from the rugged Beqaa Valley where she is hiding from the police after her spectacular act.
Footage of the spectacular incident was captured on mobile phones and shown by all local TV stations. In it Sally Hafez is seen standing on a bank counter, her nephew's toy gun in hand, telling bank employees to hand over bundles of dollars.
A crowd that gathered outside the BLOM branch in the busy Sodeco neighbourhood widely cheered Sally Hafez's heist.
“Maybe they saw me as a hero because I was the first woman who does this in a patriarchal society where a woman's voice is not supposed to be heard," Ms Hafez told the news agency.
She explained that she never intended to harm anyone, but was "tired of the government's inaction.”
“All in cahoots”
“They are all in cahoots to steal from us and leave us to go hungry and die slowly,” she lamented, noting that she did what she did only after pleading in vain with the bank manager.
For its part, the bank issued a statement saying that the branch had been co-operative with her to satisfy her request for funds but had asked for proof, as they do with all customers requesting humanitarian exceptions to existing informal controls. Except that the latter are illegal.
After her request was turned down, Ms Hafez went back two days later with her nephew’s toy gun, a perfect replica of a real gun, and a small amount of fuel mixed with water which she poured on herself, threatening to set herself on fire.
Known for her activism, Ms Hafez insists that what she did was to get money for her older sister who has a brain tumour resulting in a loss of mobility and speech and needs medical treatment in hospital.
Exasperated like thousands of Lebanese by three years of financial crisis, Ms Hafez is one of five savers to rob a bank that day. This led banks to close their doors this week, even though people need cash.
As expected, the president of the Bank Employees Federation, Georges Haj, condemned the hold-up, saying that popular anger should be directed at the government, not credit institutions.
Thus far, 6,000 employees in the banking sector have lost their job; what is more, for the World Bank, the country’s current crisis was "orchestrated by the country's elite”.
Sally Hafez managed to get US$ 13,000 and 30 million Lebanese pounds out of her family’s saving account of US ,000. She was also careful to get a receipt so she would not be charged with theft.
Afterward, she snuck out of a window at the back of the bank, went home, only to find a little later that the building was surrounded by the police.
She then went on Facebook saying that she was already at the airport, on her way to Istanbul. Wrapping herself in a robe and placing a bundle of clothes on her belly to make her appear pregnant, she put on a headscarf and left evading police.
"I went downstairs in front of all of them,” she said. “They wished me good luck with the birth. It was ... like in the movies.” She also noted that once Lebanon's judges ended their strike she would surrender to the authorities. For now, courts are proceeding at a snail’s pace with many detainees languishing in prison.
An accomplice was detained for helping Ms Hafez carry out the hold-up, but he was later released on bail on Wednesday.
Welcomed triumphantly upon leaving the Beirut gendarmerie building, he said he would help anyone for humanitarian reasons to get their money from their frozen accounts.
Several savers’ associations have endorsed the young activist’s action.