Tax hikes and wildfires fuel unrest in Lebanon

Public anger peaked over the imposition of a 20-cent daily fee on messaging applications, including WhatsApp.
Saturday 19/10/2019
A blend of defiance and hope. A demonstrator sits on a sofa with a Lebanese flag covering his face near burning tyres during a protest over deteriorating economic conditions in Jdeideh, Lebanon, October 18. (Reuters)
A blend of defiance and hope. A demonstrator sits on a sofa with a Lebanese flag covering his face near burning tyres during a protest over deteriorating economic conditions in Jdeideh, Lebanon, October 18. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - Planned tax hikes became the latest in a string of blows to the Lebanese people, sending thousands into the streets to protest during the country’s severe economic crisis.

Days after Lebanon was engulfed by wildfires and the government’s inability to meet an emergency that resulted in the loss of thousands of hectares of forests and damage to properties was exposed, public anger peaked over the imposition of a 20-cent daily fee on messaging applications, including WhatsApp.

The government later scrapped the tax and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave his political adversaries in the cabinet a 72-hour ultimatum to agree on “convincing” reforms.

Security forces fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Beirut amid some of the largest demonstrations the country has seen in years. Riots left two people dead and dozens wounded.

“We have no jobs, we have no money and we have no future,” one protester screamed. “Revolution! Thieves!” chanted the crowd outside government and parliament buildings.

Widespread corruption compounded by years of regional turmoil is catching up with Lebanon, which has the third-highest debt level in the world — 150% of GDP and a total of $86 billion.

“The people took to the streets in a spontaneous way. They felt they are being deprived of their last means of free expression. Those who use web messaging are the people who cannot afford to pay the regular mobile fees, which are the most expensive worldwide,” said socio-economist Mona Fayyad.

The protests transcended sectarian divisions and confessional rhetoric that is traditionally used to break up activism, Fayyad said.

“For the first time each community is turning against its own leaders,” she said. “In southern Lebanon (Shia communities) are protesting against Hezbollah and Amal MPs. In Christian areas they criticised President Michel Aoun and burned posters of [Foreign Secretary] Gebran Bassil. In mainly Sunni Akkar and Tripoli they are burning the posters of Prime Minister Saad Hariri.”

“For once the Lebanese are acting as citizens who share the sufferings, not as partisans divided by traditional sectarian polarisation,” Fayyad added.

The government came under harsh criticism for not being prepared to fight wildfires. Lebanon’s three firefighting helicopters have not been functional since 2014, prompting authorities to ask Cyprus for assistance.

A preliminary assessment indicated that some 2,100 hectares of forests were lost south of Beirut, far beyond the yearly average of 600-800 hectares of burned land, said George Mitri, director of the land and natural resources programme at the University of Balamand.

“We had more than 100 fires in 48 hours,” Mitri said.

In a show of national solidarity, volunteers from across Lebanon rushed to back up overwhelmed fire and civil defence crews and assist those affected by the blaze and Lebanese living abroad sent donations.

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