In Depth

What Lebanese protesters want

Demonstrations were triggered by government’s proposed WhatsApp tax

The Lebanese government is trying to appease demonstrators as mass protests rocked the country for a fifth consecutive day.

The BBC reports that the “biggest protests to sweep the country in over a decade” began on Thursday after a series of controversial new taxes were proposed by the government. 

On Friday, the protests “devolved into violence in the capital Beirut that saw riot police in vehicles and on foot clashing with demonstrators”, Al Jazeera adds.

In a bid to quell the unrest, Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced steps to cut Lebanon’s huge deficit, slashing politicians’ salaries by half and giving financial help to families in poverty.

But despite the olive branch, many of the protesters “scorned the package as ‘empty promises’” and vowed to continue demonstrations until the entire government resigns, reports AP.

Why are protesters angry?

Lebanon, which mostly escaped the upheaval of the Arab Spring in 2011, has been beset by economic problems in recent years and has seen an escalation in widespread corruption and economic mismanagement, while public services go underfunded, the BBC reports.

Citizens of the Mediterranean country, which also has one of the biggest public debt ratios in the world at around 150% of its GDP, have grown increasingly disillusioned with a “broad multi-sectarian political class that has ruled the country since Lebanon’s civil war, which ended in 1990”, CNN adds.

Dissatisfaction over government policy reached breaking point on Thursday, when a proposed $6 (£4.60) monthly tax on WhatsApp voice calls was announced, prompting thousands of people to take to the streets in nearly all of the country’s major urban areas.

The tax was scrapped the following day, but protests against the government continued, with dozens of reported injuries as protesters burned tyres and security forces fired tear gas. The rallies escalated into wider protests against corruption, inefficiency and a lack of basic services.

By Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people had gathered in the capital and other cities to create the biggest demonstrations seen in Lebanon since 2005, when Hariri’s father, Rafic, who served as prime minister from 2000 to 2004, was assassinated.

“After decades of being pitted against one another, people across Lebanon’s confessional divide appear to have now banded together to rise up against sectarian overlords,” CNN adds.

Since Friday, commercial banks have remained closed and highways are mostly blocked.

What has Hariri done to appease the protesters?

On Monday, the prime minister announced a series of sweeping fast-tracked reforms to appease growing anger against the government.

Unusually describing his own measures as a “financial coup”, Hariri said that his government would scrap all new taxes in 2020, halve the salaries of top officials, increase penalties on smugglers, establish a national anti-corruption commission, fund subsidised housing to the tune of $160m (£123m), abolish the Ministry of Information, implement an income tax on banks and review the feasibility of privatising the country’s mobile phone networks.

“These decisions are not in exchange for anything,” Hariri said. “I am not going to ask you to stop protesting and stop expressing your anger,” says AP.

Why are protesters still calling for his resignation?

Lebanese news agency An-Nahar reports that despite the promises from Hariri, the “overwhelming majority of protesters vowed to remain on the streets until the current government resigns.

“They have called for the formation of a technocratic government consisted of a small number of experts tasked with lifting Lebanon out of its slump,” the agency adds.

CNN says this demonstrates that “trust in the governance of political elites has collapsed” and that Lebanese citizens don’t believe the government “has the wherewithal to implement its plans” anyway.

Lebanon’s demonstrators, Sky News says, “might not have yet achieved their objective of removing the political establishment from power - but they may have changed the way politics is run in this country for generations to come”.

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