The October 2019 protests in Lebanon weren’t just about the “WhatsApp tax”


Two years ago, on October 17, 2019, the people took to the streets of Lebanon with an unprecedented sense of unity, calling for the downfall of the entire political and economic power structure that has governed the country since the end of the armed conflict. in 1990. The trigger for this collective mobilization was the government’s decision to impose even more taxes as part of the austerity measures – notably a “WhatsApp tax”, which would charge what is a free global calling service. .

To better understand people’s reaction, it’s important to review the build-up that led to the October protests: in 2018, over $ 11 billion was pledged to Lebanon at CEDRE’s international donor conference. in Paris to stimulate the Lebanese economy. Aid was conditional on the implementation of long-awaited reforms, however, but the government could not even meet for months due to political feuds among its members. In September 2019, the Prime Minister declared a state of economic emergency. The following month, on October 13, more than 100 forest fires spread through the forests of Lebanon. Authorities were unable to bring the fires under control – mainly due to lack of helicopter maintenance – and ended up relying on the support of local groups and civil society to help contain the blazes. Meanwhile, supporters of various political parties have been implicated in sectarian and political armed clashes in different regions – such as the Kfar Matta shooting in Mount Lebanon involving the convoy of then Minister of State Saleh Issam Gharib in the during a visit by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs. Minister Gebran Bassil at the end of June 2019 – causing casualties and spreading frustration and fear across Lebanon. This is just a taste of the daily desperation people woke up to in the year leading up to the October 2019 protests. The “WhatsApp tax” was just the last straw. broke the camel’s back.

During the protests, people in the streets stood in front of television cameras and voiced their demands. We all identified with a woman saying in the early days of the protest movement that she could not afford to pay her children’s school fees and a man who cried because he was unable to pay his wife’s cancer treatment. To the people, the “WhatsApp tax” was simply emblematic of the failure of the political establishment to find long-term structural and sustainable solutions to address the underlying weaknesses of the crumbling economy. Instead, the elite pursued the same ill-advised path of shielding themselves from accountability for systemic corruption and mismanagement.

The October protest movement was not the first time the Lebanese people have shown unity in calling for socio-economic justice in the post-civil war period: in 2015, widespread protests in response to the wrong management of the waste crisis in Lebanon have also crossed the barriers of identity politics. , sectarianism and political affiliations.

Over the past two years, and alongside accusations of having ulterior motives or serving geopolitical agendas, economic and political authorities have attempted to contain the impact of the October protest movement by suggesting that they are the protests themselves which triggered the ensuing economic collapse and the accompanying deterioration in living standards, not the other way around.

In fact, economists consider that the first signs of an impending collapse appeared as early as 2011, when economic growth forecasts were negative, which turned out to be true. In 2014, remittances and other inflows of dollars fell sharply, against a backdrop of a negative balance of payments. And news began to emerge a few months before October 2019 of large U.S. dollar deposits being transferred out of Lebanon, while other depositors, often small, were and still are not allowed free access to their deposits. accounts.

In October 2019, the population took to the streets after a series of catastrophic economic shocks: private banks stopped allowing customers to access their savings and current accounts denominated in dollars; the Lebanese currency lost its artificial stability for the first time in 30 years; unemployment, inflation and poverty rates, along with all other socio-economic indicators, showed Lebanon was heading for economic and social unrest.

It turned out to be an unprecedented collapse, considered possibly the third worst global economic crisis in 150 years, according to the World Bank. In March 2020, the government defaulted on Lebanon’s foreign currency debt (Eurobonds) for the first time in history. This was clearly not due to a few months of protests, but rather to decades of unsustainable debt management and the lack of practical economic solutions.

It is in this context and under these conditions that the Lebanese have called for social justice for a whole series of human rights, including their rights to education, health and work, as well as calls for a new code. civil status, equal nationality rights for Lebanese mothers and the right to truth and justice for the families of the missing. In short, people called for fundamental structural and political change, based on better enjoyment of civil, economic, political and social rights and accountability for corruption, mismanagement and violence.

During the five months of protests from October 2019 to March 2020, the old fault lines were replaced by new dividing lines: the widely chanted slogan “”killun yaani killun“(In Arabic for” all means all “) – referring to all political parties in Lebanon – meant that, for the first time, regardless of the political history and sectarian affiliation of each party, regardless of the political opinion and sectarian identity of each demonstrator, the Lebanese people had united as “us” against a “them” in power. It was the deeper and more real legacy of the “WhatsApp tax” protests.

This article was originally published by L’Orient-Le Jour on October 17, 2021.


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