BEIRUT (AFP) – Hundreds of protesters blocked major highways in Lebanon yesterday, after thousands angry at proposed tax increases thronged the streets overnight demanding the government’s resignation in the largest demonstrations in years.
Public anger has simmered since Parliament passed an austerity budget in July to help trim a ballooning deficit and flared on Thursday over plans to tax calls on messaging applications such as Whatsapp, prompting the government to withdraw the deeply unpopular proposal.
The government is weighing a raft of new belt-tightening measures it hopes will shore up its finances and secure the disbursement of USD11 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 by ministers.
Yesterday morning, charred refuse bins, torched tyres, broken street signs and shattered glass from damaged storefronts littered the streets of central Beirut – the scene of violent confrontations between security forces and protesters overnight.
The government announced the cancellation of a planned Cabinet meeting as protesters gathered for a second day, the state-run National News Agency reported.
Banks, state institutions, schools and universities were closed as protesters blocked key highways connecting the capital to the rest of the country with burning tyres.
An AFP correspondent said demonstrators cut the main road to Beirut airport for a second straight day.
Interior Minister Raya al-Hassan warned protesters “against damaging public and private property and blocking roads.”
Security forces will take necessary measures to protect the safety of civilians and their property, she said on Twitter yesterday.
Dozens gathered near government headquarters in central Beirut, screaming anti-government slogans and denouncing dire living conditions in a country with one of the highest debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) ratios in the world.
A convoy of motorcycles drove towards the Interior Ministry, followed by dozens of protesters on foot, who chanted the popular refrain of the Arab Spring protests of 2011, “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
Protesters also gathered in the southern city of Sidon and in several towns in the east and north. Their numbers were expected to swell though the day.
Demonstrations erupted across the country late on Thursday after the government announced a USD0.20 tax on the huge number of calls made on messaging applications.
They are the largest since a 2015 refuse collection crisis sparked widespread anti-government protests.