Only hours after taking a decision to impose a charge of 20 cents per day for calls via voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), the Lebanese government backed down from the plans and said no additional taxes should be introduced in the 2020 state budget.
The reversal came after angry people took to the streets of Beirut, the suburbs and provinces and they cut off several roads across the country with burning tires.
Following a cabinet session held on Thursday, Information Minister Jamal Jarrah said a decision was taken a day earlier to impose the 20 cents based on a proposal from the Minister of Communications, Mohamed Choucair.
The government says that such a decision would generate around $200 million in revenues.
On news about the government decision, protests spread across the country to the suburbs and provinces, prompting several deputies to change their position and say they were against the levy. Choucair told local television on Thursday evening that Prime Minister Saad Hariri ordered him to cancel any charges on voice calls.
Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, took to Twitter in the evening to explain that the 2020 state budget does not include any taxes and that the fee on WhatsApp calls has no relation to the budget.
"I maintain that the budget does not contain any tax or fee. Nothing has been endorsed. As to the WhatsApp fee, it has nothing to do with the budget," he tweeted.
However, the ministers’ U-turn had failed to appease public opinion.
Early on Friday, protesters were still in the street of the capital and its suburb, as Lebanese security forces used tear gas to disperse them in Beirut, causing some to faint, Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV said.
Hours before the government withdrew the charges on calls via VoIP used by applications including Facebook-owned Whatsapp, Facebook calls and FaceTime, the Lebanon digital rights group SMEX said the country's main mobile operators are already planning to introduce new technology that will allow them to detect whether users are trying to make internet calls using their networks.
Mohamad Najem, executive director at Beirut-based SMEX, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the government's decision is illegal because the telecom company cannot sell the service to citizens, who are already paying a fee in exchange of obtaining Internet, and therefore are forced to pay twice for the service.
Meanwhile, the Saudi embassy in Beirut warned its nationals in Lebanon to stay away from the places where demonstrations are held.
The Kingdom has lifted its long-standing warning against Saudis traveling to Lebanon only last February.