Lebanese threaten government with civil disobedience in reaction to poor services

The campaign basically calls on the Lebanese to stop paying electricity bills, income taxes and other government fees.
Sunday 02/02/2020
An image reflected in a shop window shows Lebanese  anti-government protesters marching during a demonstration as army soldiers look on from across the street in Beirut,  January 25. (AFP)
Unyielding. An image reflected in a shop window shows Lebanese anti-government protesters marching during a demonstration as army soldiers look on from across the street in Beirut, January 25. (AFP)

BEIRUT - There is no proper public transport, no housing policy, no electricity and no decent roads in Lebanon, reasons enough for the Lebanese to stop paying taxes, argue activists of the “We Will Not Pay” campaign begun in reaction to the country’s deteriorating economic situation.

The campaign, an implicit invitation to civil disobedience, basically calls on the Lebanese to stop paying electricity bills, income taxes and other government fees, in addition to high-interest bank loans that people contracted to finance services that the state has failed to provide for decades, said Roy Dib, a campaign activist.

“It is a show of solidarity with the people who are rebelling against the political authorities because they lost their jobs, their savings are frozen and they can no longer afford to pay their dues,” Dib said. “The campaign calls on all Lebanese (without exception), including those who can pay loans, to boycott paying until certain demands are met.”

“We pay double power bills (including one for private generators), take house loans because the government has no housing policy, car loans because there is no proper public transportation system and education loans to enroll in private universities because the level of public education has dropped drastically. These financial burdens are imposed on the Lebanese due to the government’s poor services,” Dib said.

Banks have been providing private loans with interest rates as high as 20%. The campaign aims to have banks offer a 6-month grace period for repayment of loans after which they would reschedule payments in addition to eliminating or reducing interest on loans.

Dib said boycotting payments of loans “is a pressure tool to reschedule the loans and to assist those who are unable to pay and there are many of them.”

“Banks have made a lot of money from high-interest rates over decades. It is time they pay back,” he said, adding that activists have prepared draft bills that some MPs are willing to propose in parliament to force banks to change their policies to protect people unable to pay back loans.

The campaign established a hotline to volunteer lawyers providing legal consultations. “Every Friday a person can take an appointment to meet the lawyers and get advice on legal issues with the banks,” Dib said.

Activists called on the Lebanese to stop paying income tax and municipality fees in addition to electricity bills. Power outages of several hours each day have become the norm in Lebanon for more than a decade.

“The electricity company EDL (Electricite du Liban) is the most corrupt sector with the highest waste worth billions of dollars. It would not be the first time that the electricity company is boycotted. It happened in the 1950s to force the French to hand over the sector to Lebanon after independence and it worked,” Dib said.

“We believe that we have to put huge pressure on the electricity company to force it to improve its services.”

Electricite du Liban accounts for about $2 billion of the country’s debts while it receives $1.5 billion a year from the government, mainly to cover fuel costs.

The campaign found wide interaction among the Lebanese, especially given the difficult financial circumstances that the country is going through and the deterioration in living conditions. It is spreading across Lebanon with activists mobilising support in many regions.

“We received a great response in the form of messages and comments on our Facebook page from people who have already stopped paying,” Dib said. “There is a status quo, a reality that everybody is acknowledging… Those who are earning half salaries or have lost their jobs cannot repay their dues. They have to secure their basic day-to-day expenses first.”

Supporters of the campaign took to social media to express their enthusiasm. “We won’t pay our taxes until they give us back the money they took,” a Twitter user said.

“Until there is a government that we trust to be capable of managing the state’s money properly, there is nobody to pay these taxes to,” said another tweet.

Basically, the people want to give back the government and its faulting institutions a taste of their doing, posting: “You don’t give us our money, we don’t give you yours.” “You don’t give us what we paid for, we cease topay.”

Anti-government protests since October have blasted Lebanon’s ruling elite for decades of corruption and mismanagement that left the country near economic collapse. The Lebanese pound, long pegged to the US dollar, has lost as much as 60% of its value against the dollar and banks imposed unprecedented controls to preserve liquidity.

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