Beirut - Security forces fired tear gas and chased down protesters in Beirut over the weekend after tens of thousands of people across Lebanon marched to demand the demise of a political elite they accuse of looting the economy to the point of collapse. The Lebanese have had no shortage of things to protest in recent years, with a barren economy that forces many young people to leave the country for good jobs, with landfills and beaches overflowing with trash and with the government perpetually deadlocked over reforms. But the last month has brought more than its usual share of indignities: a faltering currency, crises over wheat and gas and, earlier this week, forest fires for which the government was so unprepared that it was forced to turn to its neighbours for fire-fighting help.
On Thursday evening, the government announced a tax on calls made using popular internet messaging services including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and FaceTime, a measure it said would help raise revenue amid a fiscal crisis. For many Lebanese, who already pay some of the highest mobile service rates in the region - there are only two telecom companies in the country, both state-owned - this was going too far.
Riot police in vehicles and on foot rounded up protesters, according to Reuters witnesses. They fired rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, dispersing demonstrators in Beirut’s commercial district. Dozens of people were wounded and detained.
Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri blamed his partners in government for obstructing reforms that could ward off economic crisis and gave them a 72-hour deadline to stop blocking him, otherwise hinting he may resign.
Hariri, addressing protesters, said Lebanon was going through an “unprecedented, difficult time”.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THESE PROTESTS
These are Lebanon’s biggest protests in a decade, and recall the 2011 Arab revolts that toppled four presidents. Lebanese from all sects and walks of life have come out on to the streets, waving banners and chanting slogans urging Hariri’s government to go.
The rallies follow warnings by economists and investors that Lebanon’s economy and graft-riddled financial system are closer to the brink than at any time since the war-torn 1980s.
“There are those who have placed obstacles in front of me ... and in the face of all the efforts that I have proposed for reform,” Hariri said, without naming names.
“Whatever the solution, we no longer have time and I am personally giving myself only a little time. Either our partners in government and in the nation give a frank response to the solution, or I will have another say,” he said.
“The deadline left is very short. It’s 72 hours.”
WHAT IS THE PRIMARY DEMAND OF PROTESTERS?
Protesters poured through villages and towns as well as the capital Beirut for a second day. No political leader, Muslim or Christian, was spared their wrath.
Their chants called for leaders including Hariri, President Michel Aoun, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri to step down.
The mood was a mixture of rage, defiance and hope.
As night fell, crowds waving Lebanese flags marched through the streets as patriotic music blared from loudspeakers. They shouted: “Our demands are one, our objective is one: the people want the downfall of the regime.” Some protesters fainted as security forces fired tear gas.
The Red Cross said its teams had treated 160 people wounded in protests since Thursday evening.
“You should be protecting us. Shame on you,” a young man yelled as he covered his face against the choking fumes.
Lebanon’s internal security apparatus said 52 police were injured on Friday and its forces arrested 70 people.
Some protesters, including men in black hoods, blocked roads, set tyres on fire and used iron bars to smash storefronts in Beirut’s posh downtown district.
As fires blazed, some streets in the capital looked like a battlefield, strewn with rubber bullets, smashed up cars, broken glass and torn billboards. Firefighters struggled late into the night to douse the flames.
With demonstrators crowding around Aoun’s palace in Baabda, the United Nations urged all sides to refrain from actions that could lead to more tensions and violence.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates warned their citizens against travelling to Lebanon. Bahrain told its nationals to leave at once.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE IMPACT OF CORRUPTION?
Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, also blamed other parties for blocking reforms, saying the government must work to stop corruption and avoid imposing new taxes.
The latest unrest erupted out of anger over the rising cost of living and new tax plans, including a fee on WhatsApp calls.
“We came to the streets because we can no longer bear this situation. This regime is totally corrupt,” said Fadi Issa, 51, who marched with his son. “They are all thieves, they come into the government to fill their pockets, not to serve the country.” In an unprecedented move, Shiite protesters also attacked the offices of their deputies from the influential Hezbollah and Amal movements in southern Lebanon.
To boost revenues, a government minister on Thursday unveiled a new fee for WhatsApp calls that fuelled outrage. But as the protests spread hours later, Telecoms Minister Mohammad Choucair revoked the planned levy.
ARE PROTESTS SECTARIAN IN NATURE?
No. The protesters’ disdain for Lebanon’s leaders seemed omni-partisan. In Sunni-dominated areas, people tore down posters of Hariri, the country’s most powerful Sunni. In largely Shiite parts of southern Lebanon, they chanted against Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Parliament, whose popularity usually goes unquestioned, and in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut they attacked the offices of Hezbollah members of Parliament. Outside the government palace in Beirut on Friday evening, a chanting crowd alternately mocked Hariri and Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and a leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party.
“They are the kings, and we are the slaves. Enough,” said Suzy Barakat, 40, a public relations worker who was part of a crowd that had gathered near a highway overpass in Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburb.
She said she had voted for Hezbollah in the last parliamentary elections, but was fed up with the entire sectarian system, under which the perpetual power struggle among Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious groups produces jobs and patronage for politicians’ followers, but little more than deadlock for the country as a whole. “We should get rid of it,” she said.
In a country fractured along sectarian lines, the unusually wide geographic reach of the protests highlights the deepening anger of the Lebanese.
WHAT IS HEZBOLLAH’S POSITION?
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said on Saturday that the group was not demanding the government’s resignation amid the protests. Nasrallah said in a televised speech that he supported the government, but called for a new agenda and “new spirit,” adding that ongoing protests showed the way forward was not new taxes. Any tax imposed on the poor would push him to call supporters to go take to the streets, Nasrallah added.