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WhatsApp Got To Do With It? Lebanon’s Mass Protests Reach Sydney

Hundreds have gathered in Sydney's CBD to show their support for anti-government protesters in Lebanon who have been demonstrating for three days over the rising cost of living and new tax plans.

Large crowds gathered at Martin Place on Sunday, with protesters chanting and holding up flags to stand in solidarity with Lebanese demonstrators.

Similar protests were also held in the U.S, Canada, Mexico, and Spain over the weekend.

In Lebanon, thousands have taken to the streets in the capital of Beirut and other cities across the country over the last three days.

Tensions have been rising for some time in Lebanon over perceived government corruption, mismanagement of funds, high debt and unemployment, with four ministers resigning over the weekend following the wide-scale protests.

Earlier, the Lebanese government quickly backtracked on plans to slap taxes on free voice-over internet calls after thousands took to the streets in objection, but the people aren't done protesting just yet.

The country's beleaguered administration had announced a $0.30 daily charge on WhatsApp voice calls and similar apps. The free application is widely used in place of fee-based telecommunication services.

The plan -- set to raise funds for Lebanon's 2020 draft budget, according to Information Minister Jamal al-Jarrah --  was scrapped hours later due to thousands of citizens protesting, resulting in clashes with security forces.

The proposal comes as the country grapples with one of its most challenging economic battles, with high debt and unemployment plaguing the masses.

Despite the proposed tax being dropped, protests have continued as the Lebanese push for politicians to step down amid a national economic crisis.

People gather in front of the Grand Serial, the headquarters of Prime Minister Saad Hariri, amid anti-government protests against an unpopular proposal to introduce fees for users of messaging apps. Image: Marwan Naamani/picture alliance via Getty

Al-Jarrah said on Thursday local time the Lebanese cabinet had initially agreed to a charge of 30 cents a day for calls via voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) used by apps like FaceTime, Facebook CallApp and WhatsApp, according to Al Jazeera.

The fee was estimated to contribute roughly $365m in annual revenue from the country's estimated 3.5 million VoIP users, about half of the country's seven million population.

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A member of the Lebanese security forces uses a tear gas grenade launcher during a protest in Beirut on October 18 against dire economic conditions. Image: AFP via Getty

The popularity of VoIP calls is tied to Lebanon having only two mobile phone service providers, which are both state-owned, with some of the most expensive rates in the Middle East.

The proposed VoIP fee and other tax hikes triggered some of the country's biggest protests in years. Over the past two days, thousands of Lebanese have blocked major highways and burned tyres, with dozens reportedly injured in clashes with security forces.

Protesters unload tyres from a car which they'll burn to block a highway in Beirut, Lebanon during unrest sparked by economic difficulties. IMAGE: Getty Images

In some cases the demonstrations evolved into riots, as protesters set fire to buildings and smashed window fronts, taking their anger out on politicians they accuse of corruption and decades of mismanagement.

Lebanon's government recently declared a state of "economic emergency". The country faces a myriad of problems, like high debt, stagnant growth, crumbling infrastructure and reduced capital inflows.

"We are not here over WhatsApp, we are here over everything: over fuel, food, bread, over everything," one protester in Beirut told Al Jazeera.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaking on the protests in Beirut on October 18. Image: LEBANESE PRIME MINISTRY OFFICE / HANDOUT/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Almost 231,000 Australians (about one percent of the total population) claimed some Lebanese ancestry in the 2016 census.

On Saturday, Bishop Antoine-Charbel Tarabay -- spiritual leader of Australia's Maronite Catholic Lebanese community -- said his "heart and prayers" are with the country's protesters.

"I share their pains and, with them, we call for change, for a better future, for economic stability, for clean politics, and for a Lebanon we all dream of."

Featured Image: Antoinette Latouff

Contact the author: samelia@networkten.com.au