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WORLD | 18-10-2019 15:28

Daily tax on WhatsApp calls sparks mass protests in Lebanon

In the midst of a massive economic downturn, the government imposed taxes on the free messaging service. Widespread outcry ultimately compelled the government to reverse its policy within hours, but protests have yet to cease.

Lebanon saw escalating nationwide protests Thursday night and into Friday, prompting Prime Minister Saad Hariri to offer a 72-hour ultimatum to political adversaries. He asked them to agree on "convincing" serious reforms, a proposal that was rejected by protesters who later had tear gas fired on them by Lebanese security forces. 

Demonstrators are protesting over the country's worsening economic crisis, triggered by the government's announcement it would move to impose a daily tax on WhatsApp, the free messaging service and app used by many to communicate with individuals locally and abroad, among others. The tension had been building for months, the government searching for new ways to increase revenue to manage the country's economic crisis and soaring debt.

In an address to the nation and with hundreds of rowdy protesters camped outside his office, Hariri blamed political partners in his national unity government, which includes the Iran-backed Hezbollah group and rival political parties, for blocking his reform efforts at every turn. 

Protesters are raging against the country's political leaders whom they blame for decades of corruption and mismanagement that have led to the current crisis. The protests are the largest Lebanon has seen since 2015, and they threaten to further destabilise a country whose economy is already on the verge of collapse and which holds one of the largest debt loads in the world. 

Many said they would remain on the streets until his government resigned. 

In a short speech Friday, Hariri said he understood the people's anger at his government's performance and said "we are running out of time." He said he'd given himself a very short time to come up with solutions and called on his rivals to make "clear, decisive and final" decisions regarding his proposed structural reforms to fix the ailing economy.

It was not immediately clear whether his short speech would help soothe the anger in the streets, though it quickly became evident it would not. Protesters outside the government house in central Beirut remained, chanting for the downfall of the government. Reports suggested some planned to march on the presidential palace. Shouts of "Revolution!" and "The people want to bring down the regime" echoed a refrain chanted by demonstrators during Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011.

"We are here today to ask for our rights. The country is corrupt, the garbage is all over the streets and we are fed up with all this," said Loris Obeid, a protester in downtown Beirut.

Schools, banks and businesses closed as the protests escalated and widened in scope to reach almost every city and province. Hundreds of people burned tires on highways and intersections in suburbs of the capital, Beirut, and in northern and southern cities, sending up clouds of black smoke in scattered protests.

The road to Beirut's international airport was blocked by protesters, stranding passengers who in some cases were seen dragging suitcases on foot. Major traffic arteries were blocked with sand dunes.

"We are here for the future of our kids. There's no future for us, no jobs at all and this is not acceptable any more. We have shut up for a long time and now it is time to talk," Obeid added.

In some cases the demonstrations evolved into riots, with protesters setting fire to buildings and smashing window fronts, taking their anger out on politicians they accuse of corruption and decades of mismanagement. Two Syrian workers died Thursday when they were trapped in a shop that was set on fire by such rioters. Dozens of people were injured.

Some protesters threw stones, shoes and water bottles at security forces and scuffled with police. Security forces said at least 60 of its members were injured in the clashes. Protesters were also injured, though there's no confirmed number.

Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan insisted Hariri would not resign, saying to do so could spark a national crisis more dangerous than the current economic crisis.

Years of regional turmoil — worsened by an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011 — are catching up with Lebanon. The small Arab country on the Mediterranean carries an US$86 billion debt, or 150 percent of its gross domestic product.

Despite tens of billions of dollars spent since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, parts of Lebanon still have crumbling infrastructure including daily electricity cuts, trash piles in the streets and often sporadic, limited water supplies from the state-owned water company.

– AP

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