Thousands of Lebanese demonstrate against taxes, corruption

Lebanese demonstrators wave the national flag during a protest against dire economic conditions in downtown Beirut on Friday. — AFP

BEIRUT — Thousands of protesters outraged by corruption and proposed tax hikes burned tires and blocked major highways in Lebanon on Friday as the largest demonstrations in years threatened the country's fragile coalition government.

Demonstrators had taken to the streets on Thursday evening, calling for an overhaul of Lebanon's sectarian political system and voicing contempt for their leaders.

Thousands of people of all ages, sects and political affiliations brought the capital Beirut to a standstill the following day as well as gathering in other parts of the country.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, one of the most polarizing figures in Lebanon's leadership, made an address insisting that the government's resignation could lead to "something much worse than the current situation."

Under-fire Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri was to speak about the protests, which were sparked partly by a proposed new tax on users of WhatsApp and other messaging applications.

Surrounded by smoke from burning tires, protesters flew the Lebanese flag and chanted "the people demand the fall of the regime!" — a popular refrain from the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

Yara, a 23-year-old graduate, said she joined up because the protests were not sectarian.

"For once people are saying it doesn't matter the religion, it doesn't matter which political party you are following," she said.

"Today what matters is that all of the Lebanese people are protesting together."

As dusk fell on the protests, riot police deployed en masse in central Beirut and readied for a second night of protests and rioting, a correspondent said.

Lebanon, which was devastated by a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, maintains a complicated political system based on balancing the influence of Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and other religious groups.

The current unity government is backed by politicians from across the political spectrum but has been hampered by a financial crisis.

Public anger has simmered since parliament passed an austerity budget in July to help trim a ballooning deficit.

Tempers boiled over Thursday over plans to introduce a $0.20 tax on calls on messaging applications such as WhatsApp, which are widely used in Lebanon.

The government scrapped the proposal within hours but the demonstrations carried on into the early hours of Friday.

Security forces finally dispersed them shortly before dawn, firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets after they had tried to storm government headquarters.

So far at least 23 protesters have been injured, according to the Red Cross, along with 60 security force personnel, according to police.

Banks, state institutions, schools and universities were closed Friday as the demonstrations spread throughout the country.

South of Beirut, travelers trying to catch their flights had to leave their luggage behind to reach the airport by hitching rides on scooters and clambering over roadblocks.

In a sign of the scale of the popular anger, demonstrations were reported in neighborhoods dominated by Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim movement not used to opposition in its own bastions.

Protesters in various locations burned or trampled posters of Hariri, Speaker Nabih Berri and President Michel Aoun.

Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs think-tank, said the protests were "totally spontaneous" and appeared to be against the entire political class.

"The protests are a result of a piling up of grievances, resulting mainly from government mismanagement," he said.

They are the largest demonstrations since a 2015 refuse collection crisis sparked widespread anti-government protests.

Lebanese residents suffer from constant electricity shortages and poor internet.

"I want the streets to be lit. I don't want to hear any more generators," Dima Abu Hassan, 42, said. "Start there — at least some infrastructure."

The government has also come under heavy criticism over its response to forest fires this month.

In a country with one of the world's highest debt burdens, the government is weighing a raft of belt-tightening measures it hopes will shore up finances and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.

It is expected to announce a series of new taxes as part of next year's budget, which is currently being drawn up by ministers.

The demonstrations come at a time of deep divisions within the government over a raft of issues, including not only the economic reform package, but also the allocation of public sector positions and rapprochement with the resurgent Syrian government.

Growth in Lebanon has plummeted in the face of repeated political deadlock in recent years, compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.

"Most high-frequency indicators point towards a continuation of weak growth in 2019," the International Monetary Fund said on Thursday.

Lebanon's public debt stands at around $86 billion — more than 150 percent of gross domestic product — according to the finance ministry. — AFP