Protest in Beirut, Lebanon
Protest in Beirut, Lebanon Reuters

Hundreds of people took to the streets across Lebanon on Thursday to protest dire economic conditions after a government decision to tax calls made on messaging applications sparked widespread outrage, AFP reports.

The far-reaching demonstrations forced the government to walk back on its decision to approve the tax late on Thursday, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Choucair said.

Demonstrations erupted in the capital Beirut, in its southern suburbs, in the southern city of Sidon, in the northern city of Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley, according to AFP.

Demonstrators chanted the popular refrain of the 2011 Arab Spring protests: "The people demand the fall of the regime."

Protesters in the capital blocked the road to the airport with burning tires, while others massed near the interior ministry in central Beirut.

Public anger has simmered since parliament passed an austerity budget in July with the aim of trimming the country's ballooning deficit.

The situation worsened last month after banks and money exchange houses rationed dollar sales, sparking fears of a currency devaluation.

The government is assessing a series of further belt-tightening measures it hopes will rescue the country's ailing economy and secure $11 billion in aid pledged by international donors last year.

Most of the outrage appeared to be directed toward a 20-cent daily fee for messaging app users who made calls on platforms such as WhatsApp and Viber.

Before the proposed tax was scrapped, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said the move will bring $200 million annually into the government's coffers.

TechGeek365, a digital rights group, said it contacted WhatsApp and Facebook regarding the matter.

"A spokesperson mentioned that if the decision is taken, it would be a direct violation of their ToS (terms of service)," it said, according to AFP.

"Profiting from any specific functionality within WhatsApp is illegal," it added on Twitter.

Growth in Lebanon has plummeted in the wake of repeated political deadlocks in recent years, compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighboring Syria.

The Syrian civil war has spilled over into Lebanon mainly due to Hezbollah’s involvement in the fighting. Hezbollah's strongholds have come under repeated bomb attacks over its involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Politically, a new government headed by Prime Minister Saad Hariri was formed in February following a nine-month deadlock.

Hezbollah, which has a strong political presence in Lebanon, is a major part of Hariri’s cabinet, after the group and its allies gained more than half the seats of the 128-member Lebanese parliament in the election last May.