CAIRO - Protesters have taken to the streets of many towns and cities in Lebanon, following efforts by the government to begin taxing Whatsapp text messages, amid an increasingly dire economic situation due to massive government debt and insufficient revenues to continue funding government operations.
Protesters pelted riot police with rocks and tomatoes as police fired back with tear gas to try and disperse the angry crowd. Demonstrators called on the government to step down and some chanted the Arab Spring slogan of "the people want to topple the government."
A visibly frustrated Prime Minister Saad Hariri gave a televised address, explaining how he has spent the last four years "running from capital to capital," and devising "plans to raise revenues and cut costs," but being frustrated at each turn by political forces who block all of them.
He said that he's given himself a very short period (of 72 hours) to determine what to do and he hopes that other political parties agree to a solution that cuts waste and corruption, otherwise, he said, he may need to resort to another solution, without specifying what that would be.
Protests began spreading across Lebanon late Thursday after word spread that the government was hoping to tax mobile phone text messages. Many Lebanese have family members abroad and taxing phone messages would hit just about everyone.
Demonstrators attacked a Lebanese mobile phone company's headquarters Thursday, ransacking the facilities, to protest the proposed tax. Protesters also demanded that politicians be prosecuted for years of corruption.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Jibrane Bassile, who represents President Michel Aoun, told a press conference Friday afternoon that there is a consensus on "lifting the immunity of politicians and setting up a tribunal to recuperate funds that have been misappropriated or stolen."
If no action is taken, he insisted, the situation could become much worse. Bassile said the current situation and what's taking place now is the accumulation of crises and failures that are provoking the public and causing an explosion.
Bassile added that "it is better to address the situation now, while there is still law and order, still a government, and still funds in the state's coffers and food in the stores." Otherwise, he argues, "things could get desperate if there is no government, no food, no money and people start fighting each other in the streets."
Some religious leaders also voiced support for the protests. Maronite Patriarch Mar Beshara al-Raie told a gathering that he was opposed to further taxes on the people.
He said that he lifts his voice alongside those of the people demonstrating in the streets to say "no" to imposing taxes on the Lebanese people.
Antoine Zahra, a former member of parliament for the Christian Lebanese Forces bloc, said that his party supports the formation of a new government of technocrats under Prime Minister Hariri. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt accused President Aoun of "trying to deflect blame for the crisis on others."
One man told Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV that "Lebanon's confessional political system has made it impossible to rid the government of thieves as would normally be the case in a civil-based system."
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, tells VOA that "the corrupt ruling elite has squandered many billions of dollars of public assets and accumulated unprecedented debt relative to the small size of the economy. Years of runaway embezzlement of public funds," he argues, "has finally taken its toll."