This article was first published at Christianity Today, on November 8.
At first, it was two high school girls.
The education minister in Lebanon had just canceled classes nationwide due to an explosion of popular anger at proposed taxes. Public squares in Beirut and other cities swelled with demonstrations. The two students asked Steve White, principal of the Lebanese Evangelical School (LES), if he would join them and protest too.
White, a Lebanese citizen since 2013, became principal in 2000, succeeding his English father who’d held the post since 1968. Founded by a British missionary in 1860, LES preaches the gospel clearly and is one of the top schools in Lebanon. But it bucks the sectarian trend of community enclaves as 85 percent of its students are Muslim—most coming from the Shiite community. Discussion about religion and politics is forbidden.
The protests began October 17. At the height of student interest, White arranged four school buses for a unique civic education. Though he knows his students well, he couldn’t tell their breakdown by sect: Sunni, Shia, or Christian.
Which fit perfectly with the protests.
“I got excited because it was not religious,” said White. “It was nonsectarian: all of Lebanon together, no flags, no parties, they were cursing everybody.”
White did not approve of the cursing. But he did of the “everybody.” The slogan adopted by protesters: “All of them means all of them.” It targeted the leaders of Lebanon’s multiple religion-based political parties, accusing them all of corruption.
Transparency International ranked Lebanon No. 138 out of 180 in its 2018 corruption perception index, listed from clean to corrupt.
Traditionally viewed as the guardians of each sect’s interests, Lebanese political parties would regularly voice vague charges of corruption against unnamed colleagues. But unlike previous protest movements, which carried the banners of each party, this one hoisted only the Lebanese national flag with its distinguishing cedar tree.
Accordingly, White forbade students from bringing the flag of LES.
Whether inspired, sympathetic, or threatened, political leaders had little choice but to express solidarity.
According to the World Bank, one-quarter of Lebanon’s population lives in poverty. Citizens pay exorbitant fees for privately generated electricity, as the tiny Arab nation of 6 million on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea has the fourth-worst public provision in the world. Smaller than Connecticut, public debt is 150 percent of GDP. Prior to the protests, strikes threatened to cripple bread and gasoline services, as the US dollars needed to import materials dried up from the market.
People started to fear economic collapse.
In order to unlock millions of dollars of promised international investments, the government announced new taxes—including upon WhatsApp, a popular free messaging service— to lower the deficit. An austerity budget loomed, with some effort at reforms it was long unwilling to tackle. Sectarian political squabbling had prevented an agreed-upon national budget for the prior 12 years.
The subsequent protests caught the government off guard. Promising a solution in three days, officials hastily agreed to cancel tax increases, fix the electricity sector, slash their own salaries, pass laws to fight corruption, and impose a one-time tax on lucrative banks in order to balance the budget.
It wasn’t enough.
“We’ve had the same names and parties for 30 years. Why should we give them another chance?” said Nadim Costa, head of the Near East Organization, an evangelical ministry serving the poor, marginalized, and displaced across the Arab world.
“There is a spiritual dimension to what is going on…”
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