As Lebanon continues to struggle with a financial meltdown and ongoing “economic emergency,” the country is now also being rocked by its largest protests in years. A new tax of 20 cents US per day for any voice calls made via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) on apps like Facebook Messenger, FaceTime and Whatsapp was apparently the final straw that motivated the first few hundred protesters to flood the streets of Beirut Thursday. That few hundred became a few thousand and is now in the tens of thousands in cities around the country from the northern city of Jbeil to Taalabaya in the Bekaa Valley and Tyre in the south. It is not an exaggeration to say that protests and riots have now brought the country to a major crisis point, as many major businesses, banks, services and schools remain closed. With its economy poised to completely disintegrate, Lebanon now has to contend with widespread disorder and demands that its current administration step down.
Despite the government backing down on the VoIP tax only a few hours later and promising it will no longer be applied, protests have only intensified, with smoke from burning tires filling the air and fierce clashes between security forces and activists continuing Friday. Rampant rage at the political elite in Lebanon and the corrupt “regime” have spurred increasing protests which have demanded that the country’s establishment including President Michel Aoun, Parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad must all resign. Protesters in southern Lebanon even reportedly vandalized offices from the Hezbollah Party and Amal movement which they say have not been dedicated enough in rooting out corruption. Protesters accuse those in power of looting the people and trying to make up for their malfeasance and mistakes by over-taxing everyday life necessities and making life miserable for ordinary Lebanese citizens. Protesters and rioters come from all backgrounds, some with specific political goals and many simply angry over rising costs and corruption or vaguely demanding “revolution!”
Anxiety over Lebanon’s ailing economy, high prices for food, fuel, electricity and other necessities and lack of job opportunities is primarily fueling the unrest. Protesters are also furious about government corruption and incompetence in managing finances and public funds as the country’s debt soars to extreme levels and possibilities for the working class continue to plummet. In addition to the VoIP tax, the Lebanese government previously said they would be considering putting in place a two percent raise on the country’s value-added-tax by 2021 and another two percent by 2022 to bring it to fifteen percent. There is also significant anger among members of the public about the lack of an effective response to major forest fires that have burned up large swathes of the nation’s forests.
There were reportedly tens of thousands of protesters in cities across Lebanon on Friday demanding that the current administration step down. The Red Cross said they responded to two dozen people injured by exposure to tear gas and over 75 injuries on the ground, while the Lebanese government reported that their security personnel and police have suffered over 100 injuries thus far. At least two individuals have died at this point, after two Syrians were burned in a shop set on fire by protesters on Thursday. Photographs that have emerged on social media show how seriously the protests are impacting the country logistically, including shutting down access to cities via major motorways and even impeding access to Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport.
Speaking Friday evening, PM Hariri said that “Lebanon is witnessing a difficult situation, the people’s pain is real and I support every peaceful movement,” but claimed that he has been the victim of political obstructionism and “all possible obstacles have been put in my way since the formation of the cabinet.” Hariri, who has been in power since December, 2016, referred to Lebanon as a family and promised to regrow Lebanon’s economy and find solutions other than increased taxation, but stopped short of offering his resignation which some had speculated he might do. Hariri gave an ultimatum of 72 hours to other political parties in Lebanon to support his economic reforms, come up with answers and work together with his Future Movement and said that if not he will reconsider the situation and talk again to the nation. Shortly prior to Hariri’s remarks, there were reports that bodyguards of former deputy Mosbah Al Ahdab in the Lebanese city of Tripoli fired on protesters after they threw water bottles at Al Ahdab for trying to give a speech in the early evening of Oct. 18. Injuries and a possible fatality among the protesters were reported from the incident.
Frequent armed conflict from the mid-1970s until 1990s has left Lebanon as an unstable and debt-ridden nation, with unemployment rates reaching almost forty percent for citizens under 35. Hariri’s interior minister Raya el-Hassan said the PM will not step down, as his resignation would lead to even worse instability and wreak even worse havoc on Lebanon’s economy and society. Lebanon’s last major protests were in 2015 and were spurred by a garbage crisis after Beirut’s main landfill was closed. The protests came to include anger at corruption, infrastructure problems and lack of opportunities as well as demands to overthrow the government. There were a number of injuries in clashes between the military and protesters and the #YouStink uprising was estimated to have reached 100,000 during the summer of 2015, although it eventually fizzled out.
This round of protests and upheaval is unique in that religious and political forces are finding more common ground than previously in their opposition to the ruling class and administration. The current situation looks set to potentially spiral into more significant change than 2015, particularly since there is not an easy—or quick—fix to the economic woes gripping Lebanon at this time.