Recent anti-government protests in Lebanon have been dubbed the ‘WhatsApp Revolution’.
Yet some deem this phrase to be problematic as the oversimplification ignores the underlying causes of the protests.
The Tax Bill
On October 17, Lebanon’s government proposed a $0.20 tax on calls ‘via voice over internet protocol’ (VoIP) used by applications including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and FaceTime. With high mobile rates from the country’s only two (state-owned) carriers, people in Lebanon frequently turn to WhatsApp’s internet-call feature to save money and keep in contact.
Hours after the announcement, amid flurries of mass protests, the government backtracked and ultimately scrapped the plan. But protests are still carrying on with no end in sight.
For almost two weeks, banks, universities and small businesses were shut and protestors often blocked roads.
Supporters of the Iran-backed Hezbollah, a Shia Islamist political party and militant group, have attacked protestors. Despite this, the overall sense of the largely peaceful protests has been festive, with food vendors, film showings and fireworks common in cities like Beirut and a traditionally conservative Tripoli.
On October 27, tens of thousands of protestors successfully formed a human chain running from the south to the north of the country.
Lebanon’s Failing Political and Economic System
For decades, there has been a raging undercurrent of anger, frustration and disillusionment towards the Lebanese government.
Along with mismanaged wildfires, the tax seems to have been the final spark. Together they triggered hundreds of thousands to spontaneously take to the streets.
In September, the Middle Eastern country declared a state of ‘economic emergency’, with national loans equivalent to 151% of their GDP. The VoIP tariff became the latest austerity measure in a long list of desperate attempts to combat crippling debt.
Lebanon is considered the third most indebted nation in the world with the nations official currency the ‘Lira’ facing risk of devaluation. Despite this, public sector wages have been steadily increasing.
Protestors blame governmental leaders for profiting handsomely while a dangerous deficit of public finances disrupts basic human rights conditions. many experience frequent power cuts and unsafe drinking water. Only 1% of adults in Lebanon receive a quarter of the national income and almost 40% of young graduates are unemployed.
Along with a deteriorating economy, Lebanon’s government is rampant with widespread corruption, entrenched nepotism and an upheld political class. Most leadership positions have been held by the same families for decades.
Protestors have called for the complete resignation of the government and reformation of the dogmatic systems upon which the country is run.
On October 29th, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, announced his resignation, meeting a key demand of protestors. He says discussions on transitional agreements and the formation of a new government are underway amongst powerful political groups, though there are still prevalent internal feuds.
According to Lebanon’s constitution, the country’s President must be of Christian faith, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and Speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Initially, this was an attempt to represent all religious denominations within the country but has since reinforced sectarian divisions and empowered a system which restricts spiritual and social integration.
Some feel that to label the largest and longest protest the country has seen since its civil war a ‘WhatsApp Revolution’, is to downplay its radical significance. “We are not here over the WhatsApp, we are here over everything: over fuel, bread, over everything,” Abdullah, a protestor in Beirut told the BBC.
For a country riddled with divisions, the protests have been a rare show of unity amongst citizens, transcending sectarian lines and indicating the birth of a new Lebanon.