BEIRUT: Prime Minister Saad Hariri Sunday afternoon briefly addressed anti-tax demonstrators in Downtown Beirut, saying that "corruption will end," a demand repeated by many in the ongoing protests since Thursday.
"President Michel Aoun and I promised to be transparent with you," Hariri said to protesters decrying a number of proposed taxes to fund a new wage hike.
"It is true that there is waste of public money and corruption," Hariri added. However, he was met with plastic bottles from individuals present in the protest.
Later, Hariri urged "the organizers of the protest to form a committee that conveys their demands [to Hariri] for positive discussion," in a Twitter statement.
An activist identifying himself as a member of the You Stink group said to LBCI that Hariri's appearance was provocative, adding "We are not against Hariri only, we are rather facing all politicians in power."
"Let them repeal the [proposed budget] law, this is our demand," he continued.
Hariri had promised that no taxes will be imposed on consumer items like bread and fuel.
He also said that public sector employees will be granted the new raises.
Thousands of Lebanese flocked downtown Sunday to protest Cabinet plans to increase the VAT from 10 to 11 percent, to supposedly generate $200 million in revenue for the Treasury annually.
The tax increases will collectively fund a new salary scale bill estimated at LL 1.2 trillion ($800 million).
Around noon, protesters from the neighborhoods of Beirut, from its southern suburbs, south Lebanon, Baalbeck and Tripoli, arrived at Riad al-Solh Square.
“We are peaceful protesters [here] to overthrow the current tax system,” a demonstrator said.
"We cannot stand taxes anymore," one sign read, while another sarcastically asked, "Is there a thief to steal agony from our hearts?"
Many found that the current tax dilemma is an occasion to celebrate national unity.
"I would like to thank the government because they uncovered that the lie of sectarianism is actually untrue," a demonstrator said to Al Jadeed. "We are gathered here from all sects and faiths."
“The salary scale must be endorsed without a new tax hike,” a second demonstrator said.
“You [the politicians] are comparing the bread and the food of the average people to the billions earned by the investors,” he added, while a woman proposed that "the President should take them [politicians] to Roumieh [central] prison."
Various civil society movements, groups and even political parties have urged citizens to take to the streets in protest against the proposed taxes.
“We should go on civil disobedience,” another marcher said.
A speaker called for an end to corruption.
Protesters raised banners, signs and Lebanese flags.
"This is a message to the Parliament that is convening Wednesday," a marcher said to Al Jadeed while another said that "only de-confessionalization of the political system can end corruption."
"We have abundant resources [in Lebanon], but we have so many thieves, too," said former minister Charbel Nahas.
“This policy by politicians is leading to the forced migration of the Lebanese people,” a protester said.
“Roman lawmakers from the Beirut School of Law would have wept over what their successors are doing to us,” he added, referring to a famous, ancient law school destroyed in 551.
Although local media reported that the protest ended at 2:30 p.m. many activists continued to speak to TV reporters nearly two hours later.
Barricades were set at the square between the protesters and the Grand Serail. Police deployed heavily at the scene of the protests, and traffic police detoured cars away from the demonstration.
Another anti-tax protest is scheduled on Wednesday at 12:00 p.m. in Riad al-Solh square.
Around 2:00 p.m. a number of people got into a scuffle. Some threw empty bottles and fireworks at the police manning the barricades.
A number of the protesters at the metal barriers formed a human chain and chanted "Peaceful, peaceful!"
Police detained a number of young men who were near the barricades for a while before releasing them.
Fifty-year-old Jamal Qassem, a civil movement activist, was taken in an ambulance around 3:15 p.m. after being jolted by the crowds, the National News Agency said, adding that an unidentified woman was taken by the ambulance as well.
Sunday afternoon, Internal Security forces urged on Twitter protesters to remain peaceful.
"We hope the protesters would act civilly and democratically to preserve the right of expression and freedom of speech," ISF said on Twitter.
Hussein Youssef, a spokesperson for the families of the Lebanese servicemen held by the Al-Qaeda-linked extremist group who have kept a tent in Riad al-Solh, was pleading protesters to be mature and avoid assaulting security forces at the protest, NNA said.
For his part, Hariri thanked “the army and ISF today [Sunday] for their civilized behavior in protecting the demonstrators who were practicing their right [of demonstration],” in a Twitter statement.
North Lebanon Protest
A number of protesters also gathered in the town of Abdeh in Akkar and blocked the main road to decry the anticipated tax hike, the NNA said, adding that civil society organizations also demonstrated at 3:00 p.m. raising banners reading "Revolution of the loaf of bread" and "Join our demands for every state official to hear us".
East Lebanon Protests
Angry protesters in the northern Bekaa Valley town of al-Ain blocked a nearby highway with burning tires to protest the new tax increases, the NNA reported Sunday afternoon.
A Lebanese Army unit reopened the main road shortly after the incident.
The Zahle-Baalbeck international highway was also briefly blocked by youth protesting the tax hike near Hamra Plaza shopping center in Zahle, the NNA added.
Women's Rights Protest
Coinciding with the protest against taxes, Lebanese women married to foreigners gathered also in Riad al-Solh Square to demand the right to pass on their nationality to their children.
“Just like men married to foreign women pass on their nationality to their wives and kids, we want the same,” a demonstrator at the rally told Al Jadeed TV.
Under Lebanese law, Lebanese women married to non-Lebanese men are unable to pass their nationality to their spouses and children.
Supporters of this policy argue that allowing women to do so would change the country's sectarian makeup.
“Enough fear-mongering that we will change the demographics in the country,” another demonstrator said.
Women's rights activists have been protesting for years to change the law, pointing out discrimination and hardships faced by the families over work and residency issues.