Beirut, Lebanon– Thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in towns and cities across the country on Thursday, in the biggest protests in years, following the government’s announcement to introduce new taxes.
The intensity of the protests brought into question whether the government, appointed less than a year ago, would survive.
One of the country’s main politicians, Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt, told a local news channel that he had called Prime Minister Saad Hariri and told him they were “in a big predicament”.
“I would prefer if we resign together,” he told Hariri.
Interior Minister Raya El Hasan warned that the country itself could collapse if the government falls.
The protests come amid a worsening economic and financial crisis in Lebanon that many blame on the small number of sectarian politicians who have ruled the country since its 15-year civil war came to an end in 1990.
They also come just two days after the worst forest fires in more than a decade, causing outrage among citizens who blamed the government’s shortcomings for the scale of the damage.
As the ground still smouldered across much of the country, Lebanon’s Cabinet agreed on Wednesday to impose a $0.20 fee on WhatsApp calls per day, and was debating a hike in the value added tax from 11 to 15 percent.
“It was the last straw,” 41-year-old Rami told Al Jazeera, as men threw wood ripped from a nearby construction site onto a bonfire in the middle of the capital’s main thoroughfare. “The people were already at the edge barely holding on. The WhatsApp issue broke whatever they were still holding on to.”
Several big fires burned on main roads, as black smoke rose above Beirut’s iconic blue Mohamad al-Amin Mosque and the towering St. George Church, in an apocalyptic twist to the postcard-perfect image of the country’s sectarian coexistence.
“Thank god, the people have awoken,” Rami said.
‘Too little, too late’
Protesters were also outraged when bodyguards accompanying Education Minister Akram Chehayeb shot into the air with assault rifles earlier in the evening, a move Chehayeb later said was “necessary.”
As people filled the streets, Telecoms Minister Mohammed Choucair announced the reversal of the WhatsApp decision based on a request by the prime minister.
But it was too little, too late.
The country ground to a standstill, with demonstrations from Tripoli and Jbeil in the north to Baalbeck and Taalabaya in the eastern Bekaa Valley and Nabatieh and Tyre in the south.
In Nabatieh, hundreds of men headed to the homes of local parliament members, including Yassine Jaber and Hani Qobeissi of the Amal Movement – headed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri – and the leader of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammad Raad.
“Speaker Berri’s appetite hasn’t been satisfied in 30 years,” one man, who identified himself as a father of two, told reporters in Nabatieh.
Many were in the streets for the first time.
“We always used to follow on Facebook and social media, but now we’re really fed up,” Mohammad al-Mubayed told Al Jazeera, standing behind his wife, Sara in Beirut’s Riad al-Solh Square near parliament.
“We saw people were in the streets and felt that we just couldn’t stay home.”
Similarly, 16-year-old protester Fatima had never been to the streets before, and was only 12 when the last big rallies erupted in the capital in 2015 over politicians’ mismanagement of solid waste.
Like many Lebanese who leave the country in search of better opportunities, Fatima and her family have been trying for years to head to Europe, but have been unsuccessful.
Now, she said the protests had reinvigorated her. “I feel like I can do something here,” she said.
Demand for change
The nationwide protests begun with just a couple dozen people chanting for revolution in Beirut’s main square.
They multiplied into hundreds and then thousands as they marched around the capital’s streets, blocking roads.
For about ten hours, protesters remained on the streets, until they were violently dispersed by baton-wielding riot police, who fired rubber bullets and shot tear gas.
The security forces also destroyed tens of motorcycles that had been parked along roadways by protestors and hit several TV cameramen covering the demonstrations.
“Now that the people are all against them, they realise that it’s getting out of their control, so they’ve taken the decision to end it with heavy force,” Ali, 34, said from Martyr’s Square, as riot police approached.
Some protesters had also lobbed stones and other objects at security forces, and grew increasingly destructive throughout the night, setting fires, destroying billboards and tearing signs out of pavements.
There was another sombre note, with reports that two men residing in a residential building in the centre of Beirut had died as a result of suffocation from a fire lit by protesters in the building.
The Lebanese Red Cross said it had rushed 22 people to hospitals and treated 70 on the ground during the protests, while the Internal Security Forces said 60 police officers were injured.
All schools, universities and banks were expected to remain closed on Friday with a new wave of protests expected.
“I’m not here for myself,” Ahmad Halawi, 35, from South Lebanon said. “I have two children. I’m here because I want them to have a future and a country to grow up in. I really hope that this is the end of people blindly following traditional parties. There has to be change in this country.”