Lebanese voters have been protesting for five days, demanding reforms from the government and the ouster of corrupt officials.

Demonstartors holds a Lebanese flag during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 21, 2019.
Demonstartors holds a Lebanese flag during an anti-government protest in downtown Beirut, Lebanon October 21, 2019. (Ali Hashisho / Reuters)

There have been ongoing protests in Lebanon for the past five days. Lebanese voters initially demanded that the government revoke the “WhatsApp tax” it had implemented last week but the demonstrations quickly outgrew their genesis and became indicators of mass dissatisfaction with the Lebanese ruling elite.

The proposed tax on mobile messaging applications last week set off a spontaneous, cross-sectarian movement that has, according to AFP, “brought Lebanon to a standstill and put the entire political class in the dock.”

Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered in the capital and other Lebanese cities seeking improved quality of life and the ouster of many powerful politicians who have been influential in Lebanese politics for decades.

Demonstrators across the political and religious spectrum cheered and partied, chanting anti-establishment slogans while protesting into the night and the next day.

The Lebanese government chaired by President Michel Aoun met on Monday to discuss reforms, including cutting ministers’ wages by half. Other reforms are the reductions in benefits for state institutions and officials, and the central bank and private banks contributing $3.3 billion to achieve a “near zero deficit” for the 2020 budget, as Reuters reports.

Lebanon's government approved a 2020 budget envisaging a deficit of 0.6% of gross domestic product, with banks set to participate in the deficit-reduction through an amount of 5.1 trillion Lebanese pounds ($3.4 billion), Prime Minister Saad al Hariri said on Monday, Reuters reports.

Hariri, the head of a coalition that is internally divided because of sectarian and political rivalries, had issued a 72-hour deadline to his government to agree on reforms to avoid a crisis, suggesting he may resign if such a compromise is not reached.

According to officials interviewed by Reuters, Hariri had agreed to a package of reforms with his government partners to grapple with the crisis that has led “hundreds of thousands” of voters into the streets.

Lebanon's cabinet is discussing the last point related to the power sector in a list of reforms after agreeing all the others, the president's office said on Monday, Reuters reports.

Aoun commented on Monday morning that the protests in the streets express “people’s pain” but accusing everyone of corruption is very unfair, Reuters reported.

In a Twitter thread about income inequality in Lebanon based on her research paper, economist Lydia Assouad notes that “1. The top 1% richest adults receives approximately a quarter of the total national income, placing Lebanon among the most unequal countries in the World” and adds “2. Meanwhile, the bottom 50% of the population is left with 10% of total national income.”

Assouad sums it up by saying “Lebanon's protests can largely be explained by the extremely high levels of inequality in the country.”

Still, the Lebanese are hopeful. Speaking to AFP as he films volunteers cleaning up the streets on his mobile phone, Suheil Hamdan, 49, says "This is where corrupt lawmakers and ministers in our country belong -- in the bin bags," a cap on his head to keep off the sun.

"I won't leave the street until all our corrupt lawmakers and ministers are in prison," he adds.

The Lebanese are gathered together on Monday cleaning up the streets after protesting and partying the night before. The proposed tax hikes on phone calls on free apps such as WhatsApp has been shelved, but that has not been enough to satisfy protesters.

The demonstrations, the last of such scale seen were seen in 2015 under the slogan “You Stink”. The protests that took place four years ago were the result of Beirut’s main trash dump overflowing and refuse flooding the city’s streets. The movement eventually lost momentum amidst the chaos it generated.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies