10/18/2019, 10.13
LEBANON
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Demonstrations and clashes as Christians and Muslims call for government to resign

by Pierre Balanian

A tax on Whatsapp and Facebook messages has proven the last straw. Arab Spring style demonstrations in Beirut, Nabatiyeh, Dawra, Jal el-Dib, Antelias and Jiye. Schools and universities closed. A transversal movement, uniting all confessions and parties. "Enough with the feudal republic made up of leaders who only think about getting rich!"

 

Beirut (AsiaNews) - A bill proposed by telecommunications minister, Mahmud Shukeir, to impose six dollars a month for anyone using Whatsapp or Facebook, has become the straw that broke the camel's back.

Within hours the populations’ wrath erupted in spontaneous demonstrations with people of all ages and confessions. In the early hours of yesterday evening, the center of the capital was invaded by a group of protesters that gradually grew from 9.00 pm to become an irrepressible tide.

By around midnight, the spontaneous demonstrations had spread like wildfire to other parts of the country, from Nabatiyeh in the far south, to areas adjacent to Beirut such as Dawra, Jal el-Dib, Antelias and Jiye.

By 00.45 the minister of education announced the closure of schools and universities for today due to the closure of the streets by protesters. In Nabatiyeh there was news of a demonstrators attack on the house of the deputy Hani Kbeissi. Another group of protesters attempted a raid to occupy the Prime Minister’s palace in Beirut.

For months, the Lebanese have been unhappy with high prices, rising taxes and unemployment. The past fifteen days have been particularly heavy. It all started with the sudden increase in the exchange rate for the Lebanese lira against the US dollar.

The green currency which has been used in trade for decades, on one dollar to 1,500 Lebanese pounds, inexplicably reached the threshold of 1510 in the official exchange rate and 1640 in the black market and exchange offices. Cash in US currency has almost disappeared and banks have refused to deliver currency in dollars.

The reason for this dollar crisis has never been revealed. Rumors suggest that there are US sanctions on some banks and Hezbollah, while others speak of dollars being transported and sold in Syria. The increase in the exchange rate of the lira with the dollar has inflated consumer prices for foods that have had established prices based for years on the US currency. Cigarettes, flour, bread, gasoline: The price of everything has dramatically increased.

The fires that broke out for two days in Lebanon (and also in Syria) are further fueling outrage of the Lebanese. In Lebanon they were only quelled thanks to a providential rainfall, highlighting the country's shortcomings regarding in coping with natural disasters.

It emerged that there is no real civil protection, which the government for confessional reasons refuses to create and strengthen. There are two civil protection units, one under the guidance of the Ministry of the Interior and the other under the Premier’s household, but both are without any proper resources. The fires that reduced thousands of hectares of green belts to ash have shown that fire-fighting aircraft, purchased for millions of dollars, were ineffective and old, unusable. To fight against fires, the government had to ask Cyprus for help, which sent two Canadair.

Nationwide the people are united in demanding the government’s resignation, of all politicians, without exception. It has united Shiite, Sunni, Druze, and Maronite, Melkite, Armenian, old and young Muslims. Some young people declare: "We are disgusted, unemployed, hopeless, they are stealing from us, increasing taxes without offering citizens any social services, or medical care, or education, or social pensions. They are starving us: they must go. Enough with the feudal republic made up of leaders who only think about getting rich!".

Yesterday at 10.30 pm the Minister for Communications announced the withdrawal of the proposal to impose a tax on Whatsapp and Facebook, but now the people have decided to demonstrate to the bitter end until the departure of the entire political class that they consider corrupt and unpunished by of the judicial system.

For the first time religious were also present among the demonstrators. A Shiite imam in Beirut told AsiaNews that he took to the streets in a private capacity, "against the injustice suffered by the people and against the robbery of the rulers." A Maronite priest – also in a private capacity - spoke to Jal el Dib about "the human rights to have a good and dignified life". A famous TV presenter, Nishan, was seen in the demonstrations and invited singers and actors to take to the streets and join the people in this historic moment.

The fear of politicians is strong: for the first time a unified Lebanese movement is emerging, free from religious, denominational and party affiliations. Sources of Mokhtara (in the Chouf druso) have revealed to AsiaNews that the secretary of the progressive socialist party Walid Jumblat phoned Prime Minister Saad Al Hariri last night, proposing to resign with him.

The streets were closed by protesters who set fire to tires and promised not to retreat from the streets until the government falls. "We have no work - they say - we have nothing to do: we will remain in the streets until the fall of the regime": they define the government as a "regime", using the words of the Arab Spring.

The watchword is "Sawra (Revolution)" and as the hours passed the people increased. At 2 am the police charged the demonstrators trying to disperse them. In the past, as soon as the police turned on the protesters with water cannons or rubber bullets, people dispersed and the demonstrations ended. This time people resisted and did not disperse, determined to remain in the square until the fall of the government.

Fires and damage to facilities are reported in central Beirut. People are unleashing destruction in an expression of anger and intolerance, determined not to suffer or endure: "It is they who brought us to this. We are suffering; we are hungry and poor! "

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