It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After years of corruption and economic mismanagement brought Lebanon to the brink of financial collapse, the government came up with a novel way to repair the damage: a tax on the popular messaging service WhatsApp.
The reaction to the tax was quick and furious. Spontaneous protests erupted late on Thursday, not just in Beirut but across the country. Demonstrators blocked roads, burned tyres and clashed with security forces throughout the night and into the morning.
The government quickly reversed course and abandoned the tax, but it was too late. The protests quickly transformed into an outpouring of rage against corruption, economic crisis and Lebanon’s entire political class.
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“Our politicians are killing us,” said Khaled Dokmak, 23, as he marched towards the parliament building in downtown Beirut on Friday. “Everything is overpriced. There is no work, no money, nothing.”
The fires from the previous night in downtown Beirut had still not gone out on Friday morning as new ones were lit. Thousands flocked towards the country’s parliament while the government ordered all banks and schools to close.
The protests are the largest to hit Lebanon since 2015, when thousands mobilised in anger over a months-long garbage crisis that saw trash pile up in the streets. There are signs that the impact of the latest demonstrations could be even more significant.
Similar protest movements have been stymied in the past by Lebanon’s deeply entrenched sectarian political system, which has been in place since the end of the 1975-1990 civil war. But Hanin Matta, a 30-year-old translator joining the demonstration, said this time felt different.
“None of the protesters are working against each other this time. We are all here together,” she said as she applied clown make-up to her face outside of parliament.
“We’re here to say that the people have the power. We’re sick of the system. They are all criminals,” she added.
Adding to the build-up of anger over the last few days, Lebanon had just witnessed some of its worst wildfires in decades, which were exacerbated by the fact that three of its firefighting helicopters were out of service due to missing parts.
The demonstrations spread throughout the night to towns and cities across Lebanon. In a rare display of cross-sectarian unity, protesters have targeted their own leaders as well as the Lebanese government.
The WhatsApp tax may have been the spark, but protesters are furious at a system that has enriched the country’s political class and left normal people struggling to get by.
Corruption, periodical political deadlock and a years-long refugee crisis has left Lebanon’s economy battered. As part of its effort to balance the books, the government announced a plan this week to introduce a 0.22 cent tax on all calls made through WhatsApp and other voice messaging services, with a monthly cap of $6.
WhatsApp is wildly popular in Lebanon. A Pew Research poll from 2018 found that 84 per cent of adults in the country use the platform, including 98 per cent of adults under 30.
As one protester succinctly put it in a television interview that quickly went viral: “Soon, they’ll put a metre on our asses so they can tax our shit too!”
The levy was part of a package of austerity measures being discussed by the government as it works to prevent economic collapse and bring down one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world.
The crisis has had a dramatic impact on the lives of Lebanese people. In recent weeks, fears of a US dollar shortage has sparked panic for businesses across the country, especially those that use dollars to buy their product. Petrol stations have closed down in protest at the rising exchange rate, and bakeries have warned they will not survive.
Lebanon’s parliament passed an austerity budget in June aimed at unlocking billions of dollars in international aid promised to it on the condition of structural reforms. These efforts have driven real anger among all Lebanese citizens, who see the country’s political leaders as the architects of the crisis.
“Rather than looking at ways to address corruption and leakages within the state budget to balance the books, politicians are taking the easy way out by taxing an already exhausted population,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
Yahya added that the crisis has its roots in Lebanon’s postwar political settlement, which has entrenched corruption and mismanagement.
“It’s the entire post-civil war legacy, of how Lebanon has been managed both economically and politically. At the end of the civil war, all the political and military leadership just moved from the streets to government.
“Rather than build up a state, many of them looked at state institutions as war bounty.”
Where the protests go from here remains to be seen. But large numbers continued to pour onto the streets into Friday afternoon. Yara, a student from Tripoli, said she stayed in Beirut for the protests rather than going home.
“There is no work, no electricity, sometimes no bread,” she said. Like many young people, she and her friends have considered leaving the country because they fear they will not be able to find jobs. Like everyone else, she blamed the politicians.
“It is our country, and it has been taken away from us. They stole our future,” she said.