Tens of thousands of protesters poured on to the streets of Lebanon on Friday in a wave of fury against high prices, new tax proposals and a political elite seen as corrupt and self-serving.
Demonstrators burnt tyres and blocked main roads in Beirut and other cities while chants familiar from the Arab uprisings of 2011 calling for “the fall of the regime” rang out.
There were some clashes between protesters and the police.
The unrest was sparked by a government plan, now rescinded, to impose a 20 cent tax on the first WhatsApp call made by users every day. In a country with high inflation, crumbling infrastructure and poor services, many people use internet voice applications to avoid the high price of mobile calls.
The WhatsApp proposal, part of measures under discussion by the government to increase state revenues in one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world, galvanised anger across Lebanon’s patchwork of religious denominations.
According to local media reports, Lebanese from all sects — Christians and Shia and Sunni Muslims — marched to demand the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. They directed their anger against politicians from all religious backgrounds who form the political elite in a country where power is shared out according to religious groupings.
“We came into the streets because we can no longer bear this situation,” said Fadi Issa, a protester quoted by Reuters. “They are all thieves, they come to the government to fill their pockets, not to serve the country.”
He said he wanted politicians not just to resign but to be held accountable and “to return all the money they stole”.
The demonstrations, the largest in Lebanon for several years, brought the country to a standstill with schools and offices closed and the road to Beirut airport blocked.
Smaller protests over joblessness and corruption erupted a few weeks ago as the government grappled with a deepening economic crisis and falling central bank reserves which had cast doubts about its ability to import basic goods such as fuel and wheat.
Lebanon’s debt has ballooned to more than 150 per cent of gross domestic product — the world’s third-highest such ratio. The economy is sluggish with the IMF expecting economic growth in 2019 to remain sluggish.
Frequent deadlock within the power-sharing government has paralysed the government’s ability to enact economic reforms. At the same time, remittances from the vast Lebanese diaspora, an important source of revenue, have slowed down on falling confidence in the country’s economic management.
In a televised address on Friday evening Mr Hariri blamed his partners in the power-sharing government for obstructing reforms that would have allowed inflows of $11bn in economic support from international donors. He said instead of agreeing the measures, time was wasted in “scoring points” between political factions. He said he was giving his “partners in government a 72-hour ultimatum to back his reforms or he would adopt a different approach which he did not specify”.
Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister, who is also Mr Hariri’s political opponent, warned that the alternative to the government was further uncertainty and potentially chaos. He called for a raft of anti-corruption measures including lifting secrecy on politicians bank accounts. In a televised address he said there should be no new tax burdens on the population.