BEIRUT: From Tripoli to Tyre and Baalbeck to Beirut, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets Thursday night, forcing the government to backtrack on an unpopular tax it had approved just a day earlier on internet-based phone calls over services like WhatsApp.
Telecommunications Minister Mohamed Choucair said the $0.20 per day fee to use the popular services would not go into effect, according to local media. He said Prime Minister Saad Hariri had ordered the reversal.
Protesters blocked main roads across Lebanon with burning tyres. Several roads in Beirut were also cut with protesters igniting garbage bins, wood and other materials.
The biggest protest took place in Beirut, where thousands gathered in Riad al-Solh Square near the Grand Serail, the seat of govenrment. Skirmishes took place between protesters and riot police blocking the road to the Serial, in which at least two protesters were injured.
Some protesters later began rioting, lighting fires, throwing stones at police and smashing windows of near by shops. When protesters charged towards the Serial, police fired tear gas and drove the rioters back. Live TV footage showed several protesters fainting. The Red Cross said it rushed 22 people to hospitals and treated 70 on the scene, while the Internal Security Forces said in a tweet 60 police suffered injuries.
Police later used water canons and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. By dawn the protests fizzled out with many vowing to return to the streets later in the day
Civil Defence sources said two Syrian workers died when they were trapped in a shop that was set on fire by rioters.
Many protesters said it was their first time participating in a demonstration
“I’ve never gone to a protest in my life; we as Lebanese like to make it seem like we don’t care. But it’s enough, we need to go to the streets,” one protester said.
A senior banking source told The Daily Star that banks will close their doors Friday because of the street protests. Education Minister Akram Chehayed had earlier announced that schools and universities will suspend clases Friday.
Earlier in the evening, a bodyguard accompanying Chehayeb fired shots into the air as hundreds of protesters moved through a main road near the posh Beirut Souks.
In a tweet, Progressive Socialist Party chief Walid Joumblatt asked Chehayeb to hand over those involved in the shooting to authorities and called for a transparent investigation. “We refuse attacks on anyone,” he said.
“The shots don’t scare us anymore, we’ve heard a lot of shots in our life,” one protester said. “I hope they shoot us, because in Lebanon we die every single day,” another said.
Chehayeb told local channel MTV that he had been in the car with his wife and daughter and that it had been attacked by protesters. He said that the shooting by his bodyguard had been “necessary.”
“They had to fire so that they didn’t get beaten up,” Chehayeb said. “We are with [the rights of protesters], but not in this way.”
Chehayeb also said that he had asked the ISF to come pick up the two bodyguards involved.
The protests had begun with dozens of people in Riad al-Solh Square, but the numbers grew well into the hundreds as some protesters worked their way to Hamra, in the direction of the Central Bank.
“The power is with the people; we are the ones who put them there and we will remove them,” one protester, who said he was 24 years old, told reporters as he marched through Downtown Beirut.
The U.S. embassy in Beirut issued a security alert, urging Americans to avoid areas of demonstration and to monitor local media for updates on location and activity.
The protests come as the government considers raising the value added tax, and after it approved the $0.20 per day fee for internet-based voice calls like those over WhatsApp.
Protesters also gathered in the Bekaa Valley towns of Taalabaya, Chtoura and Baalbeck, filling squares and blocking roads. In Beirut's southern suburbs, protesters set fire to tires in the street. “Even the ministers of the Resistance [Hezbollah] voted for tax hikes today instead of protecting us,” one of the protesters in Beirut’s southern suburbs said.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mahmoud Qmati, who is affiliated with Hezbollah, told local TV channel LBCI that Hezbollah ministers were against the new fee on WhatsApp calls. “We will do whatever we can do reverse this decision,” he said.
However, Choucair had claimed that all in Cabinet had agreed to “the idea” of the new fee, including Hezbollah.
He also called on protesters to return home. “Going to the streets is hurting the economic situation,” Choucair said before announcing the government's reversal.