BEIRUT — Thousands of people demonstrated in Beirut on Thursday against the government’s management of a dire economy in what was one of the country’s biggest protests in years, leading the Cabinet to pull a proposed new levy on WhatsApp calls.
Roads across Lebanon were blocked with burning tires, broadcasts showed. It was the second time in less than a month that Lebanon has seen political demonstrations against the nation’s elite.
Demonstrations have been fueled by stagnant economic conditions and a financial crisis in one of the most heavily debt-ridden states in the world. The government is searching for ways to bring down its gaping budget deficit.
Previously, the Cabinet had unveiled a new revenue raising measure, agreeing on a charge of 20 cents per day for calls via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), which is used by applications including Facebook-owned WhatsApp, Facebook calls and Facetime.
The proposal would have raised a value-added tax by two percentage points in 2021 and a further two percentage points in 2022, until it reaches 15 percent.
As protests spread across Lebanon, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair phoned into Lebanese broadcasters to say the proposed levy on WhatsApp calls had been revoked.
It was expected that Prime Minister Saad al-Harari’s government would net about $200 million in revenues per year, according to a report from Reuters.
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.
Only two mobile service providers are used in Lebanon and both are state-owned, providing some of the most costly mobile rates in the region.
“We are not here over the WhatsApp, we are here over everything,” said a Beirut protester named Abdullah. “Over fuel, food, bread, over everything.”
“The people want to topple the regime,” some chanted, as scuffles broke out between protesters and security forces.
“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.”
Protesters clashed with security forces near the government headquarters in Beirut, some throwing plastic bottles at riot police. State news agency NNA said two people were wounded.
The country is under pressure to approve a 2020 budget soon, a step that may help it to unlock $11 billion pledged at a donor conference last year, which is conditional on fiscal and other reforms.
An economic emergency has been declared as the country faces debt burdens, low growth, crumbling infrastructure and strains in its financial system from a slowdown in capital inflows, Reuters said.
Crowds were still gathered in central Beirut’s Riad al-Solh square into the early hours of Friday, some of them waving Lebanese flags.
Nearby, dozens of young men on motorcycles circled a main crossroad and set tires on fire, some of them ripping out billboards and tossing wooden panels into the flames.
Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan told Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV most of the protests remained peaceful and security was under control.
The education ministry announced schools would close on Friday after the protests.