Daylight savings time dispute puts Lebanon in two timezones

Caretaker PM Najib Mikati’s decision to delay daylight saving until April 20 sparks a sectarian rift, as the Maronite Church refuses to follow suit.

A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag
A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag during a protest near the parliament building in downtown Beirut [File: Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

Lebanon has woken up in two time zones amid an escalating dispute between political and religious authorities over a decision to extend winter time for a month.

Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati issued a decision on Thursday to delay entering daylight savings time till April 20, instead of rolling the clocks forward an hour on the last weekend of March.

On Saturday, the influential Maronite Church said it would disregard the decision and would set its clocks forward on Saturday night.

Mikati’s decision was seen as an attempt to score a win among Muslims by allowing those fasting during Ramadan to break their fasts at approximately 6pm instead of 7pm.

The Maronite Church called the decision “surprising” and said there had been no consultations with other actors or considerations of international standards.

Other Christian organisations, parties and schools announced they would follow the Church.

Meanwhile, Muslim institutions and parties appeared set to remain on winter time, deepening divides in a country that witnessed a 1975-1990 civil war between Christian and Muslim factions and where parliament seats are allocated by religious sect.

Businesses and media organisations, including two of Lebanon’s main news channels LBCI and MTV, announced they too would enter daylight savings on Saturday night as calls for disobedience gained steam.

LBCI said in a statement that it would disobey Mikati’s decision because it would have harmed its work, adding: “Lebanon is not an island”.

Others have tried to adapt.

Lebanon’s national carrier Middle East Airlines said its clocks and other devices would stay on winter time, in line with Mikati’s decision, but it would adjust its flight times to keep in line with international schedules.

The state-run telecoms duopoly sent messages to customers advising them to set the time on their devices manually on Sunday, in case the clocks had automatically gone forward.

Many have said the uncertainty and potential chaos were emblematic of decades of failed governance by leaders that led Lebanon into a 2019 financial crisis the World Bank said was “orchestrated” by elites.

‘Muslim or Christian time?’

Mikati, a Sunni Muslim, announced the decision after a meeting on Thursday with Shia parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who repeatedly insisted on the change, according to a video of the meeting published by Lebanese outlet Megaphone.

“Instead of it being 7 o’clock, let it stay 6 o’clock from now until the end of Ramadan,” Berri said, according to the clip.

Mikati is seen responding that the change was not possible because it would cause “problems” including with flight schedules.

“We can’t. We can’t do it any more, it’s difficult,” he said.

But later that day, Mikati issued the decision to stay on winter time.

His office said in a statement on Saturday night the decision was a “purely administrative procedure” that was being given “an obnoxious sectarian turn”.

A spokesperson for the prime minister’s office said it did not have an immediate comment on the decision’s reasoning or the resulting backlash.

At a Beirut café on Saturday evening, a Reuters journalist heard a customer ask: “Will you follow the Christian or Muslim clock starting tomorrow?”

Paula Yacoubian, an independent member of Lebanon’s parliament, told Al Jazeera the move was a tactic to distract the public from economic problems.

“We have real problems in the country. This is a kind of distraction. They are trying to divert attention from real social, economic problems,” she said.

Independent MP Waddah Sadek said on Twitter that decisions were taken without “any consideration for the consequences or confusion that they cause”.

Some Twitter users shared an old recording of famed Lebanese composer and musician Ziad Rahbani speaking about daylight savings.

“Each year, you put the clock forward an hour and you keep us back 10 years,” he says, referring to Lebanese politicians.

“You should pay attention to the years too, not just the hour.”

Social media users also ridiculed the divide and sarcastically questioned what was more confusing, the two time zones or the Lebanese pound’s exchange rate, which changes nearly every day.

The pound sunk to a historic low against the US dollar on the country’s parallel market earlier this month. Officially pegged at 15,000 to the dollar, the pound was trading at more than 120,000 against the greenback this month – a dizzying plunge from 1,507 before the economic crisis hit in 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters