Large-scale protests took place Lebanon on October 18th, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to protest austerity measure, including a now withdrawn tax on WhatsApp calls.
The protests began on October 17th, but they had a much smaller turnout on the first day.
The protests weren’t specifically sudden, since the Lebanese government had passed an austerity budget in July to help the country reduce its massive deficit, but the “last drop” was the tax on the popular app calls. Hours after announcing the ridiculous tax, the telecoms minister, Mohamed Choucair, revoked it.
Protesters accused Lebanon’s top leaders of corruption, and called for the country’s strict banking secrecy laws to be lifted so that state funds stolen over the decades to be returned to the treasury.
— Tamara Qiblawi (@tamaraqiblawi) October 18, 2019
Demonstrators, while waving Lebanese flag in Beirut’s Martyr Square called for the resignation of the country’s political leadership, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Protests in Beirut were the most popular and demonstrators chanted “The People demand the fall of the regime,” in a reminder of the Arab Spring of 2011.
Protesters in the capital blocked the road to the airport with burning tires, prompting a heavy deployment by security forces.
At the government headquarters in Beirut, rioters attempted to storm the government building and there were violent clashes with security forces. Lebanon’s internal security apparatus said 52 police were injured and 70 people were arrested.
The Red Cross said its teams had treated 160 people wounded in protests since October 17th.
Protesters also took to the streets in the eastern Bekaa valley and in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, where local media said that several protesters were wounded when a legislator’s bodyguards opened fire on a crowd.
There have been no reported deaths.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who heads a government of national unity, which came into power less than a year ago, gave an address to the nation in which he blamed the other parties in the coalition for the issues.
“There are those who have placed obstacles in front of me … and in the face of all the efforts that I have proposed for reform,” Hariri said.
“Whatever the solution, we no longer have time and I am personally giving myself only a little time. Either our partners in government and in the nation give a frank response to the solution, or I will have another say. The deadline left is very short. It’s 72 hours.”
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, and the president’s son-in-law, in an address to protesters also blamed other political parties for blocking reforms, but said that “any alternative to the current government would be far worse”.
Some MSM outlets furthermore reported that the protests spread to “Hezbollah-controlled” areas and even offices of influential deputies from the group, as well as those from the Amal movement were reportedly stormed.
The government is weighing a series of further belt-tightening measures it hopes will rescue the ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.
It is expected to announce a series of tax hikes in the coming months as part of next year’s budget.
Lebanon’s public debt stands at around $86 billion — higher than 150 percent of gross domestic product — according to the finance ministry.
With the needed measures, things are likely to get worse before they get better, but a political will would be required, added to the ability to somehow avoid destabilization that could be detrimental to the region.
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