One Killed as 'WhatsApp Tax' Protests Grip Lebanon; PM Refuses to Step Down

Government backtracks plans to impose fees on calls amid demonstrations against state corruption

Lebanese protesters burn tires in front of the house of Fayssal Karameh during a protest against dire economic conditions in Tripoli, Lebanon on October 18, 2019.
AFP

Tens of thousands of protesters blocked roads, burned tyres and marched across Lebanon for a second day on Friday, demanding the removal of a political elite they accuse of looting the economy to the point of breakdown.

Lebanon's biggest protests in a decade are reminiscent of the 2011 Arab revolts that toppled four presidents. They brought people from all sects and walks of life on to the streets, holding banners and chanting slogans calling on the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign.

The prime minister gave in a Friday statement a 72-hour deadline to his "partners in government" to stop obstructing reforms and threatened to take a different approach otherwise, but stopped short of resigning.

Hariri said Lebanon was going through an "unprecedented, difficult time," adding that his efforts to enact reforms have been blocked by others in government whom he did not name.

At sunset, protesters poured through the villages and towns of Lebanon's south, north and east as well as the capital Beirut. No political leader, Muslim or Christian, was spared their wrath.

Across the country, they chanted for top leaders, including President Michel Aoun, PM Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to step down.

The mood was a mixture of rage, defiance and hope.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks during an address to the nation, in Beirut, Lebanon, October 18, 2019.
Hassan Ammar,AP

A security source said one protester was killed and four wounded after the bodyguards of a former member of parliament fired into the air in the northern city of Tripoli.

Fires burned in the street of Beirut. Pavements were littered with smashed glass and torn billboards. Demonstrators reached the edge of Aoun's palace in Baabda.

Addressing protesters from the presidential palace, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun's son-in-law, said the government must work to stop corruption and avoid imposing new taxes.

"Any alternative to the current government would be far worse and might lead the country into catastrophe and strife," said Bassil, dismissing calls for the administration to resign.

The latest unrest was prompted by anger over inflation, new tax proposals including a fee on WhatsApp voice calls, and the rising cost of living.

In an unprecedented move, Shi'ite protesters also attacked the offices of their deputies from Lebanon's influential Hezbollah group and the Amal movement in southern Lebanon.

"We came to the streets because we can no longer bear this situation. This regime is totally corrupt," said Fadi Issa, 51, who was marching with his son. "They are all thieves, they come to the government to fill their pockets, not to serve the country.

Riot police officers stand in front of demonstrators gathering and chanting slogans during a protest over deteriorating economic situation, in Beirut, Lebanon October 18, 2019.
\ MOHAMED AZAKIR/ REUTERS

"We don't want just a resignation. We want them to be held accountable. They should return all the money they stole. We want change," he said.

The demonstrations follow warnings by economists, investors and rating agencies that indebted Lebanon's economy and graft-entrenched financial system are closer to the brink than at any time since the war-torn 1980s.

Foreign allies have pressured Hariri to enact reforms long promised but never delivered because of vested interests.

'Downfall of the regime'

"The people want the downfall of the regime," protesters near the government's Serail headquarters chanted, echoing the "Arab Spring" slogans.

The unrest prompted Hariri to cancel a cabinet meeting due on Friday to discuss the 2020 draft budget.

"Our demand is to stop the salaries of all parliamentarians, prime minister and ministers," one banner read. "They are looters, down with them."

Fatima, a dentist, said: "We are protesting against the politicians to force them to give back the money they stole and put it back at the service of the people. If it wasn't for their corruption there would be no economic crisis."

In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the unusually wide geographic reach of these protests highlights the deepening anger of the Lebanese. The government, which includes nearly all of Lebanon's main parties, has long failed to implement reforms that are vital to resolve the crisis.

Slowing capital flows

Christian politician Samir Geagea and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, whose parties both have ministers in the coalition cabinet, have called on the government to resign.

Seeking ways to boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday announced plans for a new fee for WhatsApp calls, fuelling outrage. But as the protests spread, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair revoked the proposed levy.

A demonstrator gestures next to a tire fire during a protest against dire economic conditions in the Lebanese capital Beirut's southern suburbs on October 17, 2019.
AFP

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 unemployment among the under-35s runs at 37%.

The steps needed to fix the national finances have long proven elusive. Sectarian politicians, many of them civil war militia leaders, 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 depended on remittances from its diaspora to meet financing needs.