Lebanon News

Beirut tax hike protest gets heated

Prime Minister Saad Hariri addresses demonstrators in Beirut, Sunday, March 19, 2017. (The Daily Star/Stringer)

BEIRUT: Protesters took to the streets of Beirut Sunday holding placards expressing their outrage at proposed tax increases, in one of the largest in a series of demonstrations against the government’s plan.

Starting at noon, thousands of Lebanese demonstrators flocked to Downtown’s Riad al-Solh Square to protest Parliament’s approval of a tax increase that would pay for a new salary scale, shouting slogans and calling for revolution.

Protesters are expected to gather again Wednesday at noon.

“I am working as an illegal taxi driver. I don’t have a driving license and I’ve rented my car, and on top of that, they’ve now increased taxes,” protester Ounfouan al-Ali, who came with his friend Youssef Mansour from Tripoli’s Jabal Mohsen neighborhood, told The Daily Star.

“It’s normal for us to head to the streets, because this concerns us,” Ali said.

“After 22 rounds of violence in Tripoli, we never felt the burn of any decision as we do with this tax decision,” Mansour added.

In recent days, civil society activists and certain political parties have been protesting Parliament’s approval of several tax bills and levies.

During two sessions Wednesday and Thursday, lawmakers discussed a host of taxes proposed by the Finance Ministry to cover the cost of the salary scale bill, which is estimated at $800 million.

Lawmakers approved an increase in the value added tax from 10 percent to 11 percent.

Activists and citizens have condemned the decision, saying it will disproportionately affect low-income groups given its impact on the prices of everyday goods.

Ali Sleem, an activist with the You Stink civil society campaign, said the salary scale should be financed via taxation on banks and on private enterprises operating on seafront public property.

Another protester, who preferred to remain anonymous, called on politicians to reject corruption.

“Let them start with big companies that [avoid] the taxes,” she said.

“Enough with the stealing and the lies. No one is stupid and all people are aware [of these issues],” protester Sonia Eid said.

“Until when will we continue to live like this? We no longer want to educate our children [here] and [so we] send them overseas.”

Despite Sunday’s overall peaceful atmosphere, tensions grew between protesters and police forces around the Grand Serail.

Members of the crowd threw fireworks at Internal Security Forces officers standing behind metal barricades, prompting a brief scuffle that was soon contained.

Friction between protesters and police continued throughout the rally, as demonstrators threw water bottles, sticks and fireworks at riot police. These actions prompted the National Liberal Party, the Kataeb Party and the Progressive Socialist Party to call on their supporters to withdraw from the protest.

Tensions mounted even further when Prime Minister Saad Hariri forayed into Riad al-Solh Square to try to speak to the protesters.

“We promised to be clear with you. You will see that this government, along with the president, will always be on your side,” Hariri said, using a loudspeaker. “It is true that there is waste of public money and corruption in the country, and I wanted to come here to tell you that we will end it.”

Hariri’s attempt to calm the protesters was met with ire and he was bombarded with bottles, forcing him to withdraw.

Hariri’s call for the protest organizers to form a delegation to meet with him and present their demands was also rejected.

“We don’t want him to visit us,” Nehmat Badreddine of the We Want Accountability group told The Daily Star. “We will not create a committee. He knows his duties, which are the people’s demands.”

Police were seen detaining a number of young men near the barricades before releasing them.

Some injuries were reported, including Jamal Qassem, 50, who was taken away in an ambulance at around 3:15 p.m. after being jostled by the crowds, the state-run National News Agency reported. An unidentified woman was taken away by the ambulance as well, according to NNA.

The unruly, and at times aggressive, actions of some young protesters were met with disapproval by others in the crowd.

Some protesters sought to cross the police barricade and came close to head-on clashes with riot police officers, while other civil society members moved to form a human barrier between the demonstrators and the police to prevent tensions from escalating.

At one point, several protesters removed barricades, though they were replaced immediately by fellow demonstrators.

“We are not against the police, we are behind them,” protester Pascale Harb said, explaining why she moved quickly to put the barricades back in place.

“We want the security forces to have their rights [also] because we shouldn’t forget that there is huge negligence toward the security forces.”

Elian Bou Khalil talked a fellow protester out of crossing the metal barrier, saying those demonstrating mustn’t resort to violence and should uphold the protest’s peaceful nature.

Several other protests against the proposed tax increase were held concurrently across the country Sunday.

The Beirut protest also coincided with a separate demonstration by Lebanese women married to foreigners, who gathered in Riad al-Solh Square to demand the right to pass on Lebanese nationality to their children. Under Lebanese law, Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men are unable to pass their nationality on to their spouses or to their children.

Karima Chebbo, a coordinator of the “My Nationality is a Right for Me and My Family” campaign, told The Daily Star that the women were sick of inaction.

“We came down [to the square] today because we no longer want to listen to promises and statements in the media. We want implementation,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 20, 2017, on page 3.

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