Beirut, Lebanon – Long queues have formed inside Lebanese banks as they reopened following 15 days of closure amid unprecedented protests in the country that led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
In the early morning on Friday, crowds gathered outside a number of banks in the capital, Beirut, which has witnessed daily protests in the past two weeks.
Fears had mounted that there would be a run on the banks once they opened, amid growing concern about an economic collapse in the highly-indebted country.
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“I’ve been waiting to cash a check for more than two weeks,” Joe, a 39-year-old photographer, told Al Jazeera from inside a branch of BLC Bank in East Beirut.
“I was worried that there would be big crowds, but it’s not too bad,” he said.
Many who had gone to make transactions said they had confidence in the banking system, despite some controls on the amounts they could withdraw.
“I wasn’t scared for my cash, but I needed to withdraw some after two weeks,” Marwan, a 50-year old who works in the country’s telecommunications sector, told Al Jazeera from outside a branch of BLOM Bank in downtown Beirut.
Marwan noted he had been informed of a withdrawal limit of $2,500 a week, with a $5 charge for every $1,000 he takes out.
“This isn’t fair. I have bills to pay, for tuition for my kids. But hopefully it’s just [a] for short period of time, let’s wait and see.”
Behind him, the bank’s facade had been defaced by some of the protesters who have taken to the streets in the past 16 days, demanding politicians who have ruled the country since its civil war 30 years ago be held accountable for decades of corruption and mismanagement.
But despite its vitrine being cracked in many places, and the presence of a large green graffiti reading “F*** you BLOM Bank,” the branch opened.
This reflects an intention among many in Lebanon to return to normalcy after schools and universities, as well as many government institutions and private businesses, closed for over two weeks.
The uprising has increased pressures on an economy that has stagnated for nearly 10 years, while remittances – a staple of the country’s economy – decreased.
Pressure has grown on the country’s 20-year-old currency peg, which has kept the Lebanese pound fixed to the dollar at a rate of 1,507.5 Lebanese pounds for $1.
Rates in the parallel market have soared past 1,800 Lebanese pounds ($1.19) in recent weeks.
To see the fears of their clients, banks extended opening hours for Friday and Saturday to 5pm local time and denied that capital controls would be put in place, even though a number of banks have unofficially done so.
Some experts have said that capital controls are necessary to prevent dollars – of which there is already a scarcity – being transferred out of Lebanon, though such a move could negatively affect the inflow of remittances due to uncertainty over whether they could later be withdrawn again.
As the country continues to grapple with the economic crisis, many protesters have called for banks, which continue to reap large profits, to pay higher taxes.
They have also called for an end to the dominant role of banks in the Lebanese economy and the resignation of the Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, in near-daily protests in front of the Central Bank over the last two weeks.
On Friday morning, four activists entered the headquarters of the Association of Lebanese Banks in downtown Beirut and locked themselves inside to protest banking policies and the increasing dollarisation of some sectors of the economy.
The four were arrested, with a fifth protester outside the building being beaten and later arrested.
Mass protests have paralysed Lebanon for the past two weeks. Protesters want the caretaker government to be replaced with a cabinet of independent experts who can lead Lebanon out of a deepening financial crisis, secure basic services such as electricity and water, and create a new, non-sectarian electoral law.
A middle-aged woman who had come to settle loans at a Bank of Beirut branch in East Beirut on Friday at about noon told Al Jazeera that she never recalled banks remaining closed for such a long period of time, including during the country’s 15-year civil war.
“But I think the revolution has made us more civilised. There is no pushing, people are standing in line,” she said.
“We’ve been through so many events in this country, but in the end I still believe in the banking system – up till now.”