Lebanon paralysed by nationwide protests over proposed taxes

By Zeina Karam, Associated Press

Nationwide protests have paralysed Lebanon as demonstrators blocked major roads in a second day of rallies against the government’s management of a severe economic crisis and proposed new taxes.

The protests were the largest since 2015, and could further destabilise a country with one of the highest debt loads in the world.

The protests could plunge Lebanon into a political crisis with unpredictable repercussions for the economy, which has been in steady decline.

Some of the protesters said they would stay in the streets until the government resigns.

Burning tyres block a road in Beirut (Hassan Ammar/AP)

Schools, banks and businesses shut down as the protests escalated and widened to reach almost every city and province.

Hundreds of people burned tyres in suburbs of the capital Beirut, and in northern and southern cities, sending up clouds of black smoke in scattered protests. The road to Beirut’s international airport was blocked.

“We are here today to ask for our rights. The country is corrupt, the garbage is all over the streets and we are fed up with all this,” said protester Loris Obeid.

“We are here for the future of our kids. There’s no future for us, no jobs at all and this is not acceptable any more. We have shut up for a long time and now it is time to talk,” she added.

An anti-government protester with Arabic on his back (Hassan Ammar/AP)

The demonstrations, which began on Thursday evening, were sparked when the government announced plans for new taxes, including on voice calls made through messaging applications including WhatsApp.

In some cases the demonstrations evolved into riots as protesters set fire to buildings and smashed shop windows, taking their anger out on politicians they accuse of corruption and decades of mismanagement.

Two Syrian workers died on Thursday when they were trapped in a shop that was set on fire by rioters. Dozens of people were injured.

Some protesters threw stones, shoes and water bottles at security forces and scuffled with police. Security forces said at least 60 officers were injured in the clashes. Protesters were also injured.

Protesters clash with riot police in Beirut (Hassan Ammar/AP)

The government is discussing the 2020 budget and new taxes have been proposed, including on tobacco, petrol and some social media communication software.

Prime minister Saad Hariri cancelled a cabinet meeting scheduled for Friday to resume discussions, and is expected to address the nation later.

Interior minister Raya al-Hassan insisted Mr Hariri would not resign, saying that could spark a national crisis more dangerous than the current economic troubles.

Years of regional turmoil — worsened by an influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011 — are catching up with the small Arab country.

Lebanon has the third-highest debt level in the world, currently standing at about £66 billion, or 150% of its gross domestic product.