Lebanon (MNN) — All eyes remain on Lebanon as protests continued through the weekend in Beirut. There’s a concern that unrest could destabilize the country, which is already on the verge of economic collapse. On Friday, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri issued an ultimatum: approve the 2020 budget with the tax hike, or he walks.
“It’s a pretty substantial tax hike; it’s not a little one. I think if we had this kind of tax hike in America, we’d be protesting too,” Heart For Lebanon’s Tom Atema observes.
Taxes may be a catalyst, but they aren’t the only reason people are taking to the streets. “There’s nothing simple in the Middle East; keep that in mind,” Atema says.
Lebanon protests: the simple version
As the Associated Press describes, the movement began Thursday when a few dozen people gathered in downtown Beirut to protest new tax measures, including a daily fee on messaging applications like Whatsapp. The U.S. State Department issued a warning when things began to escalate.
The government’s tax increase is tied to two things: “One is their economic situation that we all know has been spinning out of control for years and is in dire shape,” Atema says.
Lebanon’s 1.5-million Syrian refugee population is the other factor. Since refugees don’t have Lebanese citizenship, Atema says, “they’re illegal and they can’t work, and… that [drains] the government because it uses more power, uses all kinds of services, and so forth.”
“There’s nothing simple in the Middle East”
Without international intervention, Lebanon’s leaders have few realistic options. However, “right now the world has no appetite to give Lebanon enough money to help it with the Syrian crisis or their economic situation,” Atema says.
“Their hands are tied… so, they decided to raise taxes. Now, what complicates it even a little bit more is this whole Kurdish conflict.”
As ethnic and religious minorities flee violence in northern Syria, some make their way to Lebanon. There, they exacerbate an already-unresolved problem: millions in need of government services who cannot contribute to the national economy.
“They’re from Syria, so they’re illegal, they’re not allowed to work,” Atema says of the Kurds and others crossing Lebanon’s borders.
“There [are] layers upon layers of complexity.”
Weighed by needs with challenges on all fronts, Atema says Lebanon has reached critical mass. “People are just fed up with the whole thing… and they’re trying to get the government’s attention,” he states.
Despite Hariri’s ultimatum, Atema doesn’t expect resolution anytime soon. “They’ve had a government that hasn’t functioned like a real government in two years. So, can they make a decision this fast? History would tell us, ‘No way’,” he observes.
“They’ll keep talking about it… and never come to the vote because no vote is better than voting in the wrong way to make the people madder.”
Challenges abound with Gospel work in Lebanon, but that’s especially true now. Atema’s seeking prayer support. “We need to pray for everybody in authority over there…and everybody affected one way or another by the crisis that continues to grow and get worse in the Middle East,” he says.
“Pray for the peace of the people, [and] that the people might find the Prince of Peace.”
Heart for Lebanon actively meets refugees’ needs to lead people from despair to hope through family care and education, relational engagement, and reconciliation through spiritual discipleship. Learn more about their work here.
Header image obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Photo credit: Shahen Books.