Demand for jobs, basic services sparks protest across Lebanon
Government has declared state of 'economic emergency' in face of crippling deficit
Lebanese security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Beirut early Friday morning, as thousands of people across the country took to the streets to demonstrate against the government's management of a dire economy.
Protesters blocked roads with burning tires, broadcasts showed, and threw plastic bottles at riot police near the government headquarters in the capital. State news agency NNA said two people were wounded.
"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."
Other protesters chanted that "the people want to topple the regime."
The protest is the second in a month, and one of the largest the country has seen in years, fuelled by stagnant economic conditions exacerbated by a financial crisis in one of the world's most heavily indebted states.
The government, which has declared a state of "economic emergency," is trying to find ways to bring down its gaping deficit.
Lebanon faces debt burdens, stagnant growth, crumbling infrastructure and strains in its financial system linked to reduced capital inflows. The Lebanese pound, pegged against the dollar for two decades, has been under pressure.
Earlier, the cabinet had unveiled a new revenue-raising measure, agreeing to a charge of 20 cents US per day for voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) calls used by applications, including Facebook-owned WhatsApp, Facebook calls and FaceTime, Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah said.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri had said the measure was expected to net about $200 million US in revenues for the state per year, according to a statement from his press office.
He also said ministers would discuss a proposal to raise value-added tax by two per cent in 2021 and a further two per cent in 2022, until it reaches 15 per cent.
But as people came out to express their anger at the political elite, cabinet withdrew the proposed new levy on WhatsApp calls.
'We are here over everything'
Al-Hariri's government of national unity is seeking to approve a 2020 budget, a step that may help it unlock billions pledged by international donors.
But donors want to see Beirut implement long-delayed reforms to curb waste and corruption.
"We are asking for jobs, for our rights, electricity, water," said one protester burning tires in the village of Tel Nhas, in southern Lebanon. "We are demanding education."
Another protester who gave his name as Abdullah said people are not concerned about WhatsApp.
"We are here over everything: over fuel, food, bread, over everything," he 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 station that most of the protests remained peaceful and security was under control.
The education ministry announced schools would close on Friday after the protests.