WhatsApp protests erupt in Lebanon as economic crisis deepens, two killed

Protesters cut off roads and burned debris in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct 17, calling for politicians to step down and hold early elections. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

BEIRUT (BLOOMBERG) - Thousands of protesters cut off roads and burned debris around Lebanon on Thursday (Oct 17), as anger over plans to impose a levy on WhatsApp calls escalated into demands for the government to resign.

Two foreign workers choked to death from a fire that spread to a building near the protests, state news agency NNA said on Friday.

Throngs of people converged near the government headquarters in downtown Beirut in one of the largest such demonstrations in years, calling on politicians currently debating a proposed austerity budget to step down and hold early elections.

"The people want the fall of the regime," protesters chanted. Others shouted: "Thieves!"

The economic stakes have rarely been higher for Lebanon, a tiny country that straddles the geopolitical fault-lines of the Middle East, since the end of the 15-year civil war in 1990. One of the most indebted countries in the world, it is struggling to find fresh sources of funding, as the foreign inflows on which it has traditionally relied have dried up.

The International Monetary Fund projects Lebanon's current-account deficit will reach almost 30 per cent of gross domestic product by the end of this year. It predicts that economic growth, stagnant at 0.3 per cent in 2018, would continue to be weak amid political and economic uncertainty and a severe contraction in the real estate sector.

Sporadic demonstrations have been breaking out for months as the economic crisis led to shortages of dollars and threatened the pensions even of retired soldiers.

Plans to impose a fee of 20 US cents (27 Singapore cents) on the first WhatsApp call that users make every day dominated the airwaves throughout the day on Thursday, in a country where communications costs are among the least competitive in the world and people widely use Internet voice applications to save money.

WhatsApp, a free messaging and voice platform owned by Facebook, has some 1.5 billion users worldwide.

The government is under pressure to cut spending, raise taxes and fight corruption - conditions required by international donors to unlock some US$11 billion in pledges.

But the measures are proving deeply unpopular with the public. Critics say that institutional corruption, nepotism and profiteering by politicians are bankrupting the government.

As protests spread to the suburbs and provinces, Telecom Minister Mohamed Choucair called into LBC television to say Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri had ordered him to cancel the levy. But the reversal came too late to appease public opinion.

Walls of burning tires and debris effectively severed the main thoroughfares at the northern and southern entrances of Beirut and near the city of Byblos, footage aired on Lebanese television stations showed.

In downtown Beirut, protesters threw bottles, metal barriers and other projectiles at riot police, and occasional scuffles broke out as they tried to break through the security cordon around the government headquarters.

The protests have increased pressure on Mr Hariri, who heads a national unity government that has struggled to overcome sectarian and political differences to push through a reform agenda.

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