Protesters storm Lebanon after government proposes WhatsApp tax


Thousands of demonstrators poured into downtown Beirut for a third day on Saturday, hours after overnight clashes erupted between security forces and protesters leading to large-scale arrests and several injuries.

Tempers boiled over Thursday over plans to introduce a $0.20 tax on calls on messaging applications such as WhatsApp, though it was then scrapped in response to the protests.

Lebanon's struggling economy is unable to deal with the country's huge debt, at a time when capital inflow is down.

Largescale protests that have targeted the country's entire political class have brought Lebanon to a standstill since Thursday.

They are the largest demonstrations since a 2015 refuse collection crisis sparked widespread anti-government protests. "The country is corrupt, the garbage is all over the streets and we are fed up with all this", said Loris Obeid, a protester in central Beirut.

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.

Riot police were deployed in the centre of Beirut Friday evening, readying for a second night of protests and rioting, an AFP correspondent said.

"We are here for the future of our kids".

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"All of us have to shoulder the responsibility of the current situation that we arrived at", added Nasrallah, whose Iranian-backed Shia group is Lebanon's most influential.

"If we don't work towards a solution we're heading towards a collapse of the country, it will be bankrupt and our currency will not have any value", he said.

The blaze of protests was unleashed a day earlier when the government announced a slate of new proposed taxes, including a $6 monthly fee for using Whatsapp voice calls. Protesters were also injured.

Lebanese prime minister, Saad Al-Hariri, cancelled the cabinet meeting which planned to take place on Friday, amidst calls for him to resign, Lebanese mass media reported.

In a televised speech addressing the protests on Saturday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the group opposed the government's resignation, and that the country did not have enough time for such a move given the acute financial crisis. Lebanon's debt, $86 billion, equals more than 150% of its gross domestic product.

Global donors have been demanding that Lebanon implement economic changes in order to get loans and grants pledged at an economic conference in Paris in April 2018.

In June, the Lebanese parliament passed an austerity budget to comply with the demands of global donors, who previous year pledged $11 billion to finance a plan to revive Lebanon's economy.

Despite tens of billions of dollars spent since the 15-year civil war ended in 1990, Lebanon still has crumbling infrastructure, including daily electricity cuts, piles of rubbish in the streets and often sporadic, limited water supplies from the state-owned water company.