Hariri government faces resignation calls as Lebanon protests escalate
Public anger over austerity measures boiled over on Thursday over plans to tax calls on messaging platforms like Whatsapp. Despite the unpopular measure being axed, demonstrators have continued protests and demanded the government resign.
“The people demand the fall of the regime” – the popular chant used during the 2011 'Arab Spring' protests across the Middle East and North Africa – could be heard in the protests across the country.
Demonstrators in Beirut blocked the road to the airport with burning tyres, and attempted to storm the government headquarters the city centre, resulting in violent clashes with security forces. Witnesses reported that police used tear gas to disperse the protestors.
'We will remove them'
"We elected them and we will remove them from power," one protester told a local TV station.
The state run National News Agency reported that protests erupted in the northern city of Tripoli, the southern city of Sidon (Saida), and the Beka’a Valley before spreading to other places.
The government is considering further austerity measures in the hopes that it will rescue the ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid that was pledged by international donors last year.
It is expected to announce a series of tax hikes in the next few months months as part of next year's budget.
Thursday's far-reaching protests prompted calls by senior officials for the government to resign, with influential Druze politician Walid Jumblatt saying he had urged the prime minister to step down. The interior minister however warned “If this government falls, the government that will come after will not have better options.”
Read more: Palestinian Civil Defence helps stop spread of raging wildfires across Lebanon
The protests follow wildfires which tore through large parts of the Lebanese countryside earlier this week, destroying homes and hundreds of acres of forest. The government was unable to respond properly due to the lack of firefighting infrastructure, leading to accusations of neglect and widespread public outrage.
The anger spilled over on Thursday, when Information Minister Jamal Jarrah had announced a 20 cent daily fee for users who made calls on apps such as Whatsapp and Viber, telling reporters it could bring in $200 million.
Economic growth has plummeted in Lebanon as a result of a repeated political deadlock in recent years, and was compounded by the impact the war in neighbouring Syria that has dragged on for the last six years.
Lebanon’s debt stands at around $86 million, according to the finance ministry, higher than 150 percent of GDP.
According to data from regional research group Arab Barometer, 91 percent of Lebanon's citizens believe corruption has significantly affected public institutions, with only 27 percent saying that the country's government is working to tackle the issue.