WhatsApp tax the final straw as massive protests erupt

BEIRUT: Hours after the Cabinet approved a tax on WhatsApp calls and similar services, Lebanese’ accumulated frustration erupted as they took to the streets to decry the deteriorating state of affairs. 

As protests gained traction, Information Minister Mohamad Choucair backtracked on his proposal saying that it “would be withdrawn based upon Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s request.” 

According to the now-defunct proposal, the first daily call on any platform would have been charged at 20 cents, which comes down to around 6 dollars per month.

Prior to withdrawing the bill, Choucair attempted to save face telling LBCI that the tax “was just an idea that requires further study,” despite the fact that his proposal was unanimously passed by Cabinet to be referred to Parliament for ratification at a later date. 

A number of austerity measures have been implemented to make up for the accumulated failures of the different administrations that have presided over the small Mediterranean country in recent years.

Lebanon’s public debt is equal to around 150 percent of GDP, with officials desperate to lower that margin even if it is through tax increases that would further reduce disposable incomes and strain the economy.

Ordinary Lebanese have been slapped with increased income taxes, corporate taxes, value-added taxes and the tax on income earned from bank deposits, all the while economic growth has hovered near the one percent mark as unemployment surges to near the 30 percent. 

Sporadic protests quickly spread across Lebanon, with massive crowds gathering in Beirut, Tripoli, Jounieh and Akkar. Widespread mismanagement and corruption have plagued Lebanon, finally catching up with elected officials as the local currency loses value for the first time in more than two decades.

“It’s my first time protesting because I’m fed up. All this corruption is dragging the country into more poverty and we should finally speak up,” Aline Mahdi told Annahar. 

Protesters have gathered in central Martyr’s Square and in front of Lebanon’s Parliament, with a number of demonstrators attempting to storm the building. Scuffles broke out between riot police and a number of protesters, with ambulances seen tending to those injured. 40 injuries were recorded according to the Interior Ministry as a result of clashes between demonstrators and riot police. 

Major roads have been blocked, including the highways leading to Akkar, Beirut and Sour with chants of “the people want to bring down the regime” echoing through major neighborhoods, reminiscent of sights seen back in 2015 at the height of the 2015 trash crisis. 

Banks, schools and universities will remain closed on Friday as officials attempt to ease tensions. The U.S. embassy in Beirut also issued a security alert, urging its citizens to avoid crowded areas and to monitor local media for updates.

“We should all unite as Lebanese citizens because we can no longer provide for our families. I want this government to start working for the people for once,” Elie, a father of three, said.

Lebanon’s Cabinet is currently debating the 2020 budget as it aims to ratify it for the first time in decades by the constitutional deadline. Despite officials assuring Lebanese that no additional taxes will be added on numerous occasions, including from Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, Information Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said Thursday that the value-added tax would be increased by two percent in 2021 and by another two percent in 2022. Other taxes include a hike on fuel imports and luxury goods. 

Although Lebanon’s civil war ended 15 years ago, and billions of dollars spent along with massive international aid, Lebanese continue to suffer as a result of crumbling hourslong electricity cuts, trash piles in the streets and intermittent water supply. 

“How come I’m taxed the same as all these politicians who have made a fortune from stealing public funds over the years?” one protester asked. 

Lebanese officials currently face immense pressure to further reduce the budget deficit to win over the international community and unlock the much needed $11 billion soft loan package. 

It has won some praise for its efforts to reduce this year’s deficit and proposal to revamp the electricity sector but more has to be done to slash it to around 7 percent of GDP. After attempts to cut public sector wages were rebuffed vehemently, officials seem to have resorted to increased taxation in the 2020 budget. 

“We all have to take responsibility for the current state of affairs,” Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt told LBCI. 

Lebanon’s current Cabinet took charge after almost nine months of political bickering over the allocation of ministries on January 31, 2019. 

Fatima Dia and Sandra Abdelbaki contributed to this report. 

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