Lebanon reneges on Whatsapp tax after mass protests sweep Beirut

Lebanon reneges on Whatsapp tax after mass protests sweep Beirut
‘We can’t afford more goddamned taxes!’ Lebanon’s telecoms minister u-turned on plans to impose a tax on internet communications after huge crowds took to the streets in protest.
3 min read
17 October, 2019
In Beirut’s suburbs, people burned tires in a show of protest against economic conditions [Getty]

Lebanon’s Telecoms minister has reversed plans to impose a charge on messaging app Whatsapp, after the move prompted mass anti-government protests in Beirut on Thursday night.

“At the request of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the plans to impose a 20 cents fee on internet communications, including WhatsApp, will be withdrawn. This proposal will no longer be considered by the cabinet at all, and the services will remain available as they were previously,” Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair tweeted on Thursday.

Huge crowds took to the streets of Beirut and other cities on Thursday night chanting “The people want the fall of the regime,” a slogan closely associated with the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Videos circulated on social media showing a crowd of women blockading a main street chanting “revolution!”, surrounded by dozens of riot police.

Another clip purported to show the education minister Akram Chehayeb’s bodyguards emerging from his car and shooting at the surrounding crowds, though The New Arab cannot verify the video.

In Beirut’s suburbs, people built a tire fire in a show of protest against economic conditions.

One social media user described the tax as “the straw that broke the camel's back”.
Many attributed the protests to the widening economic and corruption crisis in the cash-strapped country.

“You can't tax us for what's free! We can't afford more goddamed taxes, especially when we get nothing in return,” @leb_obs tweeted.

‘Whatsapp tax’

Lebanon had been mulling plans to become the first country in the world to charge users for Whatsapp and other online messaging applications in a new bid to increase revenues for the country's budget next year.

The decision had sparked outrage on social media, with high-profile politicians and celebrities voicing their opposition to the charge.

Between 2017 and 2018, telecom revenues dropped by 33 percent, which the ministry of telecommunications believe is because of residents using WhatsApp to make calls instead of making traditional telephone calls.

During a cabinet session on Wednesday, the prospect of charging for WhatsApp calls, which could mount to a monthly charge of $6 if the phone user made a WhatsApp call every day, Lebanese media reported.

WhatsApp users would be charged a flat rate of $0.20 daily if they make a phone call in a country that already has one of the most expensive mobile rates in the region.

Officials predict this will secure an annual revenue of $216 million for Lebanon's government, already under fire for financial corruption.

'Government, parliament... thieves'

Last month also saw protests in the capital over increasingly difficult living conditions, amid fears of a dollar shortage and possible price hikes.

A skirmish broke out late September as protesters tried to break through security barriers in front of the cabinet office and anti-riot forces pushed them back with shields and batons.

Around 500 people, some carrying Lebanese flags, had gathered earlier in central Beirut's Martyr Square to march to the seats of government and parliament, chanting "Government, parliament... Thieves, thieves!", and calling for revolution.

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