Lebanon scraps WhatsApp fee amid violent protests

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Beirut central district

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Demonstrators and police clashed in Lebanon on Thursday as thousands of people rallied against the government's handling of an economic crisis, in one of the biggest protests the country has seen in years.

The government backed down from plans, announced hours earlier, to tax voice calls made through the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging software as people vented their anger at the political elite in the second nationwide protests in less than a month.

Protesters blocked roads across Lebanon with burning tires and security forces fired tear gas at demonstrators in central Beirut early on Friday, Lebanese media said. Dozens of people were wounded, the Red Cross said. Lebanon's internal security forces said 60 police were wounded.

"I was sitting at home and I saw the people on the move and so I came out," said Cezar Shaaya, an accountant protesting in Beirut. "I am married, I have mortgage payments due every month and I am not working. It's the state's fault."

Throughout Thursday night, crowds gathered in the capital Beirut's Riad al-Solh square, some waving Lebanese flags and singing.

"The people want to topple the regime," they chanted.

Nearby, dozens of young men on motorcycles circled a main crossroad and set tires on fire, some of them ripping out billboards to toss them into the rising flames.

The protests have been fueled by stagnant economic conditions exacerbated by a financial crisis in one of the world's most heavily indebted states.

The government, which has declared a state of "economic emergency", is seeking ways to narrow its gaping deficit.

A protester burning tires in the southern village of Tel Nhas said: "We are asking for jobs, for our rights, electricity, water, we are demanding education".

Lebanon faces high debt, stagnant growth, crumbling infrastructure and reduced capital inflows. The Lebanese pound, pegged against the dollar for two decades, has been under pressure.

Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's government of national unity is seeking to approve a 2020 budget, a step that may help it unlock billions pledged by international donors.

But donors want to see Beirut implement long-delayed reforms to curb waste and corruption.

"We are not here over the WhatsApp, we are here over everything: over fuel, food, bread, over everything," said a protester in Beirut who gave his name as Abdullah.

The education ministry said schools would close on Friday after the protests. Public administration employees declared a strike so that workers could join protests expected for Friday.

The government unveiled a new revenue-raising measure earlier on Thursday, agreeing a charge of 20 cents a day for calls via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP), used by applications including WhatsApp, Facebook <FB.O> calls and FaceTime.

Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah said ministers also would discuss a proposal to raise value-added tax by 2 percentage points in 2021 and a further 2 percentage points in 2022, until it reached 15%.

But as protests spread across Lebanon, Telecoms Minister Mohamed Choucair told journalists the proposed levy on WhatsApp calls had been revoked.

Hariri had said the measure was expected to net about $200 million in revenue for the state each year.

Lebanon has only two mobile service providers, both state-owned, and some of the most costly mobile rates in the region.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil said the draft budget he had submitted to the Cabinet was free of new taxes and he remained committed to passing a budget without new taxes.


(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Reuters TV, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Eric Knecht in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo; Writing by Tom Perry and Ellen Francis; Editing by Stephen Coates)