Lebanon’s government scrapped plans, announced hours earlier, to tax voice calls made through Facebook‘s WhatsApp messaging application, as the country was besieged by the second nationwide protests in less than a month against its political elite.
The cabinet had agreed on Thursday to impose a fee on calls made over WhatsApp and similar applications as part of efforts to raise revenues in the country’s 2020 draft budget, the information minister said.
Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah said on Thursday that the cabinet had agreed to a charge of 20 cents a day for calls via the so-called voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including FaceTime, Facebook CallApp and WhatsApp.
The fee could potentially bring in up to $250m in annual revenues from the country’s estimated 3.5 million VoIP users, but triggered sporadic protests across Beirut as people rallied against the government’s handling of an economic crisis.
The country has only two mobile phone service providers, both state-owned, with some of the priciest mobile rates in the region.
In one of the biggest protests the country has seen in years, demonstrators blocked roads across Lebanon with burning tyres. Security forces fired tear gas at demonstrators in central Beirut early on Friday, Lebanese media said.
Dozens of people were wounded, according to the Red Cross. Lebanon‘s internal security forces said 60 police were injured.
“I was sitting at home and I saw the people on the move and so I came out,” said Cezar Shaaya, an accountant protesting in Beirut. “I am married, I have mortgage payments due every month and I am not working. It’s the state’s fault.”
Throughout Thursday night, crowds gathered in the capital Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square, some waving Lebanese flags and singing.
“The people want to topple the regime,” they chanted.
Nearby, dozens of young men on motorcycles circled the main crossroad and set tyres on fire, some of them ripping out billboards to toss them into the rising flames.
The protests have been fuelled by stagnant economic conditions exacerbated by a financial crisis in one of the world’s most heavily indebted states.
The government, which has declared a state of “economic emergency”, is seeking ways to narrow its gaping deficit.
A protester burning tyres in the southern village of Tel Nhas said: “We are asking for jobs, for our rights, electricity, water, we are demanding education.”
Lebanon faces high debt, stagnant growth, crumbling infrastructure and reduced capital inflows. The Lebanese pound, pegged against the dollar for 20 years, has been under pressure.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri‘s government of national unity is seeking to approve a 2020 budget, a step that may help it unlock billions pledged by international donors.
But donors want to see Beirut implement long-delayed reforms to curb waste and corruption.
“We are not here over the WhatsApp, we are here over everything: over fuel, food, bread, over everything,” said a protester in Beirut who gave his name as Abdullah.
The education ministry said schools would close on Friday after the protests. Public administration employees declared a strike so that workers could join protests expected for Friday.
In addition, the proposals to raise money from internet calls, Information Minister al-Jarrah said ministers also would discuss a plan to increase the value-added tax rate by 2 percentage points in 2021 and a further 2 percentage points in 2022, until it reached 15 percent.
But as protests spread across Lebanon, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair told journalists the proposed levy on WhatsApp calls had been revoked.
Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said the draft budget he had submitted to the cabinet was free of new taxes and he remained committed to passing a budget without new taxes.