Thousands take to the streets in Lebanon in protest against WhatsApp tax

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A Lebanese demonstrator walks past burning tires during a protest against recent tax calls on October 17, 2019 in the southern suburb of Beirut. (AFP)
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Lebanese demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against recent tax calls on October 17, 2019 in the southern suburbs of Beirut. (AFP)
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Lebanese demonstrators burn tires during a protest against recent tax calls on October 17, 2019 in the southern suburbs of Beirut. (AFP)
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Lebanese demonstrators burn wood and debris during a protest against recent tax calls on October 17, 2019. (AFP)
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Demonstrators clash with police during a protest against a government decision to tax calls made on messaging applications on October 17, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 18 October 2019

Thousands take to the streets in Lebanon in protest against WhatsApp tax

  • Demonstrations erupted in the capital Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley
  • Demonstrators chanted the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: “The people demand the fall of the regime.”

BEIRUT: Demonstrations erupted last night in Lebanon over plans for the introduction of a tax on telephone calls made over the internet using the WhatsApp messenger. Thousands of people continued to protest past midnight, even after an announcement by Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Choucair that the plan had been abandoned at the request of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Some of the demonstrators said that ditching the WhatsApp tax plan was not enough because there are many other tax burdens imposed on people in the economically paralyzed country.

“This government must resign because no one in it wants to take responsibility for our circumstances,” a protester said. “We are dying every day but they are indifferent. No jobs, no social security and no health guarantees. We are from all sects protesting in the streets. They want us to pay but they do not provide us with anything in return.”

Protests began in a number of places after civil activists with no obvious partisan political affiliations issued a call for action on social-media sites. By 8 p.m. a few dozen people were on the streets in Beirut. As they moved around, they were were joined by others and the numbers grew to hundreds and then thousands, spreading into the city’s southern suburbs. The main road to the airport was also blocked with burning tires.

Protesters packed roads from Riad Al-Solh Square in central Beirut all the way to Martyrs Square, chanting “Revolution” and “The people want to take down the regime.”

Demonstrators gather during a protest against a government decision to tax calls made on messaging applications on October 17, 2019. (AFP)

One person, the head of a family, said: “We are poor people. Why are they preying upon us? We had free WhatsApp calls — why do they want us to pay the internet bill twice?”

Protesters also gathered in Tripoli, where posters of Hariri were torn down in city is normally loyal to him. The demonstrations spread to the Bekaa region, where roads leading to the Masnaa border crossing with Syria were blocked. In Baalbek-Hermel, most of the roads leading to Hezbollah were blocked. The protesters then moved to the road leading to the south, blocking it as well. Armenian protesters and activists from Christian-majority areas also took to the streets and blocked roads in Zgharta, Akkar and Byblos.

A large number of the demonstrators seemed to be actively protesting for the first time, and there was a mix of men and women, younger and older people. The majority appeared to from the middle and lower classes. In footage recorded by TV news crews, many said that they have had enough of the way they are being treated by the authorities and will not take anymore.

In one of the calls on social media for more people to join the demonstrations, a protester wrote: “Leave your hookahs and join us. What are you waiting for? They are taking every bite from our mouths.”

The anger was sparked by a cabinet meeting on Wednesday to discuss the 2020 budget, during which Choucair raised the possibility of imposing a tax of 20 cents per day on internet calls made using the WhatsApp messenger application.

“The cabinet approved a study of the idea but did not turn it into a decision,” Choucair said. “The implementation requires technical equipment that we do not have. I have said that any step toward imposing this tax must be offset against new offers for users.”

However, the proposal was greeted with anger and outrage, especially among young people and those on low incomes. Many were also concerned that it was not only designed to boost tax revenue, but also a way to monitor communications and restrict freedom of speech and protests.

Many people made sarcastic comments about the issue, which was raised by pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar on Thursday morning. Hezbollah cabinet minister Mahmoud Qamati said that the party’s ministers would not agree to the tax. “We will seek to thwart any decision on the matter,” he added.

However, Choucair pointed out that during the Cabinet meeting no ministers, Hezbollah or otherwise, had opposed the idea. He accused “hidden hands of being behind the anger in the street,” adding: “I do not want to accuse anyone but this is not an innocent matter.”

Appeals for calm after Lebanese protester shot dead in front of wife and child

Updated 39 min 36 sec ago

Appeals for calm after Lebanese protester shot dead in front of wife and child

  • Demonstrators call on president to leave country as Aoun tells them to ‘migrate’
  • Banks, schools closed for second day running

BEIRUT: A Lebanese soldier has been detained and an investigation launched after an anti-government protester was shot in the head in front of his wife and child.

The wounded demonstrator, Alaa’ Abu Fakher, a member of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by influential Druze politician Walid Jumblatt, was rushed to hospital but died from his injuries.

The shooting took place in the coastal town of Khalde, south of Beirut, as the Lebanese army attempted to break up a protesters’ roadblock.

The action was part of the latest wave of demonstrations to hit the country which followed comments made by President Michel Aoun in a TV interview on Tuesday evening. When asked if he felt the Lebanese people had lost faith in the ruling authority, Aoun said: “If they cannot find anyone in power who is honest and genuine, let them migrate … they will not reach the authority.”

As news spread on social media, angry groups again took to the streets, blocking roads, burning tires, and calling on Aoun to leave the country.

The army and republican guard were forced to set up a cordon to stop crowds marching on the presidential palace to protest at the president’s failure to announce a date for consultations on the formation of a new government, following the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Cameras witnessed the incident in which Fakher was shot, and Jumblatt later appealed for supporters to remain calm. He also phoned the commander of the Lebanese Army, Gen. Joseph Aoun, and said: “In spite of what happened, we have no other refuge than the state. If we lose hope in the state, we enter chaos.”

Calling on Lebanese citizens “to maintain their peaceful protests,” caretaker PM Hariri stressed “the need to take all measures to protect citizens and ensure protesters’ safety.”

Army officials said a soldier had been detained over the Fakher incident and an investigation into the incident was underway.

Protesters in Beirut reacted to the shooting by throwing stones at soldiers, and in the Christian-majority town of Jal El-Dib, church bells rang to mourn the victim.

One activist in Jal El-Dib said: “The president was not fair at all in his interview. We are respectful people and not thugs. We took to the streets to make him hear our voices, but he is still not listening to us.”

Another woman said: “Does the president know that our salaries have been cut in half, that people are eating from the garbage, and that young people are being fired from their jobs, while taxes are imposed and we are accused of disrupting the lives of people? Are we not the people?”

A protester on Beirut’s Ring Bridge highway said: “We withdrew from the streets and protested in squares hoping that our voice had been heard and that the authority would meet our demands, but they thought that our revolution had ended and they could go back to the same ruling authority. Our revolution is stronger now more than ever and we are not going to leave the streets anymore.”

On Wednesday banks, schools and universities throughout Lebanon remained closed. 

According to media sources, Hariri was unlikely to preside over the next Cabinet, with Aoun and his allies, Hezbollah and the Amal Movement, insisting on a new government made up of an equal mix of politicians and technocrats. Protesters and Hariri however want a technocrat-led government.

On Tuesday night, during the Paris Peace Forum, the Russian foreign minister said that “the idea of forming a technocrat government in Lebanon is not realistic.”

In meetings with Lebanese officials, Christophe Varno, the French envoy, responsible for France’s MENA affairs, conveyed his country’s concerns to Aoun “to preserve Lebanon’s sovereignty, independence, safety and unity of people.” 

He also indicated France’s “commitment to help Lebanon overcome the current hardships.”

But Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil told Varno that “no foreign sides should interfere in and use the Lebanese crisis,” adding that “the formation of a new government is a national matter and it has reached advanced and positive phases.”