Protesters in Lebanon block roads with burning tyres and march in Beirut for a second day in demonstrations targeting the government over the country’s economic crisis.
In Lebanon’s biggest protest in years, thousands gathered outside the government headquarters in central Beirut on Thursday evening, forcing the cabinet to backtrack on plans to raise a new tax on WhatsApp voice calls.
Tear gas was fired as some demonstrators and police clashed in the early hours of Friday morning.
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The unrest led Prime Minister Saad Hariri to cancel a cabinet meeting scheduled for Friday to discuss the 2020 draft budget.
Lebanese media has said he would instead make a speech on the protests.
Fires lit on the street in central Beirut were smouldering on Friday morning. Pavements were scattered with the glass of several smashed shop-fronts and billboards had been torn down.
Two foreign workers choked to death after a fire spread to a building near the protests in Beirut, the National News Agency (NNA) said.
— ibn baldwin (@joeyayoub) October 18, 2019
Protesters blocked roads in the north, the south and the Bekaa Valley, among other areas on Friday, the NNA reported. Schools were closed on the instructions of the government.
“We are one people united against the state. We want it to fall,” said a protester in the town of Jeita, some 20km (12.4 miles) from Beirut. “Revolution, revolution!” they chanted.
In Beirut, several thousands of people marched near the government’s Serail headquarters chanting “the people want the downfall of the regime”.
— Larissa Aoun (@LarissaAounSky) October 18, 2019
This was the second wave of nationwide protests this month.
In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the unusually wide geographic reach of these protests has been seen as a sign of deepening anger with politicians who have jointly led Lebanon into crisis.
— ibn baldwin (@joeyayoub) October 18, 2019
The government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, is struggling to implement long-delayed reforms that are seen as more vital than ever to begin resolving the crisis.
The Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar described it as “a tax intifada”, or uprising, across Lebanon. Another daily, al-Akhbar, declared it “the WhatsApp revolution” that had shaken Prime Minister Hariri’s unity government.
"We're not here over WhatsApp – we're here over everything, fuel, food, bread, everything."
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 18, 2019
Seeking ways to boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday announced plans to raise a new fee of 20 cents a day for calls via voice over internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
“It was the last straw,” 41-year-old Rami told Al Jazeera, as men threw wood ripped from a nearby construction site onto a bonfire in the middle of the capital’s main thoroughfare.
“The people were already at the edge barely holding on. The WhatsApp issue broke whatever they were still holding on to. Thank God, the people have awoken,” Rami said.
As the protests spread, Minister of Telecommunications Mohamed Choucair phoned into Lebanese broadcasters on Thursday evening to say the proposed levy had been revoked.
Shattered by war between 1975 and 1990, Lebanon has one of the world’s highest debt burdens as a share of its economy.
Economic growth has been hit by regional conflict and instability. Unemployment among those aged under 35 runs at 37 percent.
The kind of steps needed to fix the national finances have long proven elusive. Sectarian politicians, many of them civil war veterans, have long used state resources for their own political benefit and are reluctant to cede prerogatives.
The crisis has been compounded by a slowdown in capital flows to Lebanon, which has long depended on remittances from its diaspora to meet financing needs, including the state’s deficit.
The financial crunch has added to the impetus for reform but the government’s steps have yet to convince foreign donors who have offered billions in financial assistance conditional on changes.
The strains have emerged recently in the real economy where importers have been unable to secure dollars at the pegged exchange rate.