Holding a gun, a desperate man stuffs a large packet of diapers into a plastic bag. “Quickly, quickly,” he demands as the cashier clears what little cash is in the till.
The robbery, recorded on CCTV, is not an isolated incident. Another video circulating the same day on social media shows a woman being mugged in broad daylight on what appears to be a street in Beirut’s affluent Ashrafieh neighbourhood.
The assailant grabs the woman’s handbag, pulls her to the ground, before speeding off on a motorcycle. Her child, witness to the whole incident, remains standing on the pavement.
Other robberies have been happening off-camera. Last week, a group of young men on motorcycles stole food from a bakery in the northern city of Tripoli, protesting Lebanon’s economic situation and the rising cost of living.
Measuring petty crime
Behind the videos lies a worrying trend. Statistics from Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) show an overwhelming increase in monthly theft rates.
Many incidents are the result of a relatively new phenomenon for Lebanon – petty crime.
“The robbery of shops and pharmacies is new. It is connected to the economic situation,” an ISF source, speaking under condition of anonymity, told Al Arabiya English.
“This is not a security problem, but an economic problem,” the source said, adding that the ISF was finding it difficult to curb theft rates due to Lebanon’s crumbling economy.
The cost of living in Lebanon has sky-rocketed since the country’s local currency, the Lebanese lira, began devaluing sharply in October last year.
Imported food items such as meat are completely off the menu for many – but even simpler locally-grown foods such as tomatoes and garlic have doubled in price. The crisis, combined with the coronavirus lockdown, has put at least half of the Lebanese population under the poverty line.
Figures obtained by Al Arabiya English show a 22 percent year-on-year increase in theft; by May 2020, the ISF recorded a total of 863 incidents of theft, compared to 705 the previous.
Although petty crime is a new development, similar year-on-year increases in theft are not unheard of.
“Between the years 2013 and 2014, we had an increase of around 100 percent,” the source recalled, referring to a politically turbulent year for the country. The average number of robberies recorded per month in 2014 was 190 – slightly more than the current average of 170 robberies per month.
The overwhelming reaction to thefts like the one captured on camera last week, has been sympathetic. Diapers – one of Lebanon’s many imported products – are prohibitively expensive for most Lebanese people.
“I stopped buying diapers a while ago because their price is through the roof… it’s only gonna get worse,” commented one Twitter user.
The role of organized crime
Pierre Al-Khoury, a public affairs researcher and member of the Board of Directors of the Lebanese Economic Association, noted that Lebanon has not seen such petty crime rates since the Lebanese civil war.
But Khoury also believes that organized crime may also play a large role in the increase in robberies seen so far in 2020.
“Let’s not quickly assume that poor and angry citizens are behind this phenomenon,” he continued. “Lebanon now is a perfect terrain for growing systematic and organized crime [including] drug dealing, money laundering and blackmailing rich people.”
ISF statistics show that theft is not the only crime on the increase.
Murder has seen a year-on-year increase of 124 percent, with 92 recorded cases by May 2020. This year has also shown a leap in car theft, with 303 cases by May, compared to 191 at the same time last year.
Organized crime has recently been targeting rich Lebanese citizens whose stashed cash is easy pickings.
As trust in the Lebanese banking system has eroded, citizens are keeping more money in their homes. During the first month of Lebanon’s protests, one of Lebanon’s largest insurance groups saw sales of “cash-in-safe” insurance policies quadruple.