Thousands Rally in Beirut against Taxes as Hariri Arrives in Person to Address Them

Thousands of protesters flocked to the Riad al-Solh Square in downtown Beirut on Sunday to voice rejection of the new taxes that the parliament has approved as part of measures aimed at funding the long-stalled new wage scale.

Unaffiliated citizens, numerous civil society groups, a number of syndicates and supporters of the Kataeb Party, the Lebanese Communist Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, the National Liberal Party, ex-minister Ashraf Rifi and March 14 took part in the mass rally.

Demonstrators later pelted Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s car with water bottles after he got out of his armored convoy behind the police line at the Grand Serail to address them.

Hariri could get no closer as protesters began throwing water bottles and shouting “Thieves!”

With water bottles falling around him and his bodyguards shielding him with their arms, Hariri promised demonstrators via a megaphone to “put an end to corruption and the squandering of public funds.”

“We have promised you to be clear with you and God willing this government and the president will always stand by you and by the people and their agony,” Hariri added.

He then left the area on foot.

The premier later took to Twitter to call on protest organizers to “form a committee that presents their demands in order to discuss them in a positive spirit.”

Protesters called on authorities to refrain from imposing “unfair taxes” on citizens and to put an end to corruption and the squandering of public money.

They also stressed that they are with the approval of the new wage scale, “but not at the expense of the Lebanese citizen.”

And threatening further escalation, protesters described the current situation as “unacceptable.”

After some protesters removed the metallic barricades outside the Grand Serail, minor scuffles erupted between them and security forces.

Some protesters also hurled firecrackers and empty bottles at security forces and scuffled with other demonstrators who tried to keep the rally peaceful.

The numbers of protesters started decreasing after around four hours from the beginning of the rally, as some masked demonstrators vowed to spend the night at the square.

“We Demand Bread and Dignity, the Correction of Wages, and the Lowering of Prices”, said one of the banners that were carried by the protesters.

“Go Home and Stop Receiving Your Salaries and Allowances,” said another banner, addressing Lebanese officials.

The demonstration was held amid heavy security measures around the Grand Serail — the government’s headquarters – and the parliament building.

“You Steal, We Pay!” read another banner while one depicted a picture of Lebanon’s cabinet with the caption: “The Bandits of Lebanon”.

Transparency International ranked Lebanon 136th out of 176 countries last year in its Corruption Perceptions Index, in which first place goes to the least corrupt.

“On top of everything else, this government wants to pass unconstitutional laws and taxes instead of finding the source of waste and corruption in the Lebanese state,” said Alaa al-Sayegh, 29.

“They’re paying for all this waste and corruption from the pockets of the Lebanese people,” he added.

Camila Raad, the 32-year-old head of a teacher’s union in the northern city of Tripoli, said she had traveled to the capital to show her “opposition to the government, which has starved the people.”

“We have no food. No work. We’re hungry… They want to increase taxes and we can’t even pay for food,” she said.

Protesters had taken to the streets across Lebanon in recent days in rejection of the new taxes.

“We in Lebanon are on the verge of a social explosion,” Neamat Badreddine of the We Want Accountability campaign had warned during a Friday demo.

She accused the political class of impoverishing citizens and destroying the middle class through its “flawed taxation policies and failure to endorse a progressive tax system.”

In addition to a 1% VAT increase new taxes have been imposed on diesel, traffic fees, travel, bank interests, cement, cigarettes and alcohol in addition to a host of taxes related to financial and real estate transactions.

The Syndicate Coordination Committee, a coalition of private and public school teachers and public sector employees, has been pushing for the approval of the new wage scale for several years now and has organized numerous street protests and strikes to this end.

The SCC has however rejected hiking taxes on citizens to fund the wage scale and has instead called for putting an end to rampant corruption and the squandering of public funds.