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Robbing Thieves: Bank robbery between radical direct action, self-interest and mere survival in post-revolutionary Lebanon



Only two years after the Thawra uprising challenged Lebanon’s oligarchic regime, Lebanese citizens are increasingly resorting to radical tactics to defend their interests: Faced with desperate economic circumstances and financial crisis, rather than taking to the streets in mass protest, depositors have taken to robbing banks to forcibly retrieve some of their own savings.

In a context where state corruption and mismanagement are intrinsically tied to the informal profiteering networks between political class and the banking sector, these forced asset recoveries have elevated some of their perpetrators into the ranks of revolutionary heroes, sparking solidarity protests and declarations of support by players that had been at the forefront of mobilization during the 2019 Thawra.At the same time, critics have pointed out the particularistic demands and privileged backgrounds of those orchestrating the robberies as evidence for their inherently counter-revolutionary nature. They caution that the individualization of social struggles further supports the fragmentation of resistance.

Against the backdrop of these divergent readings of an inherently unconventional form of resistance, this project explores the phenomenon of forced asset recoveries in Lebanon and the competing political meanings projected onto the perpetrators and their actions. Through a combination of original event data and discourse analyses, the study seeks to understand the social demographics, motivations and tactics behind the bank robberies. It furthermore explores how these characteristics reify or break with heroising or vilifying discourses, and whether the robberies are symptoms of a revolutionary repertoire shifting to new contentious arenas or merely represent expressions of self-help in a financial crisis.

Based on a mapping of the incidents and their discursive embedding, it is argued that the holdups have become powerful signifiers for a collective struggle against a corrupt and clientelist regime, despite their contravening and ambiguous characteristics. As such they provided reference points for social mobilization and organization in a context of an otherwise fading revolutionary momentum. These results have implications for our understanding of the nature of contention in phases of demobilization as well as the ways in which individual acts that can be reasonably signified as resistance may serve as a vehicles for keeping revolutionary imaginaries and organizing alive.