LEBANESE STAGE EXTRAORDINARY REVOLT AGAINST THEIR POLITICIANS
By Donnelly McCleland
Lebanon has passed a series of major economic reforms, including the slashing of officials’ salaries and the scrapping of austerity measures, after a weekend of mass nationwide protests over a deteriorating economy. The announcement of the 17-point economic program was met with a mixture of cheers and jeers at protests in downtown Beirut, where hundreds gathered on Monday [21 October]. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets across Lebanon on Sunday, in some of the largest demonstrations seen in the country since March 2005, when mass protests led to the expulsion of Syrian forces from the country. (CNN)
Sweeping change demanded
The mass protests that have swept Lebanon in the past week began as a spontaneous outburst of rage in response to the government’s proposed levy on the popular messaging service WhatsApp. However, in the space of a few short days, they transformed the country – as simmering frustrations and anger over perceived ongoing exploitation and economic mismanagement by a governing elite – evolved into a mass movement aimed at its overthrow. This is evidenced in the ongoing protests and calls for a general strike, despite the prime minister’s announcement of a raft of proposed reforms to address protesters’ concerns. There are many who believe it is a case of ‘too little, too late’, while still more believe that protesters need to push for an entire overhaul of government – widely viewed as corrupt beyond redemption. Protesters say they have had enough of a ruling class that has divvied up power among themselves and amassed wealth for decades but done little to fix a crumbling economy. Mr Hariri’s 11th-hour ‘rescue plan’ has largely been met with disdain on the street.
Chants of “revolution” and “downfall of the regime” have reverberated through cities and towns across the country, galvanising the masses in a way that few protest movements have in the past. The scale of the protests appears to have taken the government completely by surprise.
Key underlying issues
The combination of an acute economic crisis and decades of rampant corruption has clearly pushed the country to the edge. Lebanon’s debt-burdened economy has been sliding towards collapse in recent months, adding to the economic woes of a population exasperated by rampant corruption, the lack of job opportunities and poor services. Forest fires also devastated parts of the country last week, with politicians accused of inaction as the country burned. Among the protesters’ main grievances is the poor supply of electricity from the state, which citizens have to complement with costly generators.
Lebanon’s public debt ratio is one of the largest in the world — more than 150% of gross domestic product (GDP), or around $86 billion — according to the Finance Ministry. Economic growth has plummeted to 0.3% in recent years, with political deadlock compounded by the impact of eight years of war in neighbouring Syria, and the influx of an estimated 1.5 million war refugees.
According to the World Bank, more than a quarter of Lebanon’s population is said to be living below the poverty line, while the political class has remained relatively unchanged since the end of a devastating 15-year civil war in 1990. Lebanon is currently ranked 138 out of 180 in Transparency International’s 2018 corruption index, and residents suffer chronic electricity and water shortages.
Lebanon’s rather unique political system was set up to balance power between the country’s religious sects, including Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze. However, critics say it entrenches political patronage and pits citizens against each other along sectarian lines.
A united and peaceful front
These mass demonstrations have had a rather surprising outcome as its drawn people together from across the sectarian and religious lines that define the country and its political system, including Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims and Druze. There have been some incidents of violence, but overall small clashes have given way to mass demonstrations with an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Demonstrators, old and young, spoke of their joy of experiencing a rare feeling of national unity as they converged towards protest sites at the weekend. The large-scale gatherings have been remarkably incident free, with armies of volunteers forming to clean up the streets, provide water to protesters and organise first aid tents.
Many are wondering what is next for this small, but strategic Middle Eastern nation, as the central demand remains an end to corruption. Only one party has to date resigned their positions in government. On Saturday [19 October] Samir Geagea, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces (LF) party, announced his ministers were quitting the government. “We are now convinced that the government is unable to take the necessary steps to save the situation,” said Geagea. Other members of the government, including Shiite movement Hezbollah, are opposed to resigning. Demonstrators in Beirut celebrated the news of the LF’s resignation but continued to call for wholesale change. It has been suggested that the government resign and hand over power to a council of non-political judges until elections can be held.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
Many news accounts have indicated that the massive protests have involved Lebanese from all walks of life and represent the diverse nature of the country in a dramatic show of solidarity. Lebanon (though small in population) has the largest proportion of Christians in the Middle East (anything between 30 and 40 percent has been estimated); and many of these have also peacefully demonstrated their opposition to perceived governmental corruption and mismanagement. There is a deep longing for justice and righteousness to prevail, and many have publicly expressed this desire. They have asked for prayer for their nation.
A Christian INcontext contact in Lebanon shared the following: “The Church is praying earnestly, because what’s happening is historic. Change is taking place, and it seems there is no turning back. The question is what kind of change? As a Church, we don’t want to become a country that would allow everything according to the world, and this unfortunately is what seems to be happening. That’s why we need to have solutions from the presence of God. At the demonstrations I was trying to see the place for God in it, there wasn’t. But, this is the shape of the new Lebanon. We refuse it without Jesus. We pray that He brings solutions, and gives us solutions. We pray that His name would be in it, and that He will take His rightful place above all. It is written: ‘Come with me from Lebanon my bride, come with me from Lebanon.’ [Song of Solomon 4:8] The revolution started against the poverty and high taxes, while people in government take all the money for themselves. The Lord is against that (Psalm 12:5 says: ‘Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord. ‘I will protect them from those who malign them.’) and we seek His Kingdom to come upon Lebanon.”
Since the Lebanese constitution requires that there be Christian representation in government, it would make sense that Christians in government may also be perceived as corrupt, and it is thus interesting to note that the only party that has stepped down and acknowledged that change is needed is a Christian party. It brings to mind the verse in Matthew 5:25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary explains: “We ought carefully to preserve Christian love and peace with all our brethren; and if at any time there is a quarrel, we should confess our fault, humble ourselves to our brother, making or offering satisfaction for wrong done in word or deed: and we should do this quickly; because, till this is done, we are unfit for communion with God in holy ordinances.” Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers goes so far as to contrast ‘natural’ wisdom with Christ-like wisdom, in that: “The impulse of the natural man at such a time, even if conscious of wrong, is to make the best of his case, to prevaricate, to recriminate. The truer wisdom, Christ teaches, is to ‘agree’—better, to be on good terms with—show our own good will, and so win his.”
Lebanon faces a crucial moment in their history and Christians, both in government and on the streets, can play a pivotal role in bringing about Kingdom changes in their nation.
- For wisdom as the government addresses grievances
- For protests to remain peaceful
- For believers, both in government and society, to be hope-bearers and agents of change for the glory of His Kingdom