Lebanese rage against government’s economic policies for third day

The protests that began as an outburst against taxes, including on VOIP calls, have grown into an expression of anger against corruption and the government’s handling of the economy

October 19, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch

Thousands of people took to the streets for the third day in succession on October 19, Saturday, in what are the biggest protests in the country since the 2015 trash crisis. The mobilizations began as a response to the government’s decision on Wednesday to introduce a wide variety of taxes that would increase the cost of living for all sectors of society.

The taxes included a $0.2 daily fee on voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) calls through apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Facebook CallApp, as well as a tax hike on tobacco products. The taxes were withdrawn by the government following the protests but people remain on the streets, reflecting the widespread discontent against the economic and political crisis in the country.

The protests have sent the government reeling, with prime minister Saad Hariri announcing on Friday that his coalition partners had 72 hours to come up with solutions to the crisis, failing which he would resign. A number of leftist political parties and organizations, including the Lebanese Communist Party and the National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon, are in the thick of protests. Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he was not in favor of the government quitting.

The largest demonstrations took place in the capital, Beirut, where thousands gathered at the Riad al-Solh square near the Grand Serail, the government palace. At different points across Beirut, protesters burned tires and blocked major access roads in and out of the capital, as well as the road to the airport. People also marched to strategic government buildings, such as president Michel Aoun’s palace in the suburb of Baabda and the Lebanese parliament and the interior ministry building.

Protesters chanted slogans calling for the fall of the regime, revolution and condemning the “thieves.” Mobilizations were also held in other cities, such as Tripoli, Bekaa, Sidon and Tyre. They demanded that the current government resign over its corruption and administrative and economic failures. Security forces were deployed in various towns and cities to suppress the protests. The security forces used tear gas to dispel the protesters while clashes were also reported between protesters and security forces in some places.

Two foreign workers from Syria choked to death after the building they were sleeping inside was set on fire. The head of the Lebanese Red Cross, George Kittaneh, said that 22 people fainted and 70 were treated on the spot because of the fire. In the clashes between security forces and protesters, more than 100 people were injured.

The protests stem from the government’s targeting of the common people in an attempt to address the issues in the economy. Lebanon has a debt of $86 billion, which is equal to around 150% of the GDP. In July, the Lebanese parliament passed an immensely unpopular austerity budget in order to reduce the country’s deficit, which included measures such as cutting wages, pensions of public servants, increasing income taxes, corporate taxes, value added taxes and taxes on earned income on bank deposits. These austerity measures were imposed in order for Lebanon to obtain USD 11 billion in international aid that was promised by international donors at the CEDRE economic conference in Paris in April 2018.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate is close to 30%, and up to 37% for those under the age of 35. The citizens have to live through daily power cuts, intermittent water supply, and trash that rots on the streets for days. Recently, protests took place in the country after the Lebanese pound tanked (1 USD is equivalent to 1650 pounds). This resulted in an acute shortage of dollars at exchange shops all across the country, severely affecting businesses.

The Lebanese Communist Party called on people to continue mobilizing against the economic crisis and political corruption, and denounced the violent repressive response of the government and its willingness to plunge the country into chaos in order to push forward its agenda. The Youth sector of the Communist Party of Lebanon also released a statement in support of the protests and denounced the government repression of those in the streets.

The Lebanese Communist Party has joined the massive protests.

The National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL) declared that they will fight till the end in defense of the right of the people to a dignified life. They emphasized that “The people want a decent life, work, health, education, old age and all guarantees and access to public services such as electricity, water and communications. This is the uprising of our people in Lebanon.” They also criticized the economic model based on the exploitation and extraction of wealth from the poor and working class while those in power destroy the economy and people’s livelihoods and get away with it.