When two of Lebanon’s top leaders decided to delay daylight saving time by a month, they were aiming to ensure that Muslims would not have to break their dawn-to-sunset fast an hour later during the holy month of Ramadan.
But the decision last week sent the nation into a tailspin and set off a firestorm of outrage. On Monday, the officials backtracked and said the clock change would go ahead around midweek, just a few days later than originally planned.
Christian clergy and leaders of Christian political parties had rejected the last-minute change, made by two senior Muslim officials — Prime Minister Najib Mikati and House Speaker Nabih Berri — without consulting other religious groups. They vowed that they would abide by daylight saving time regardless of what the officials had decreed. And many other Lebanese found their lives upended, as they were forced to navigate between two time zones.
The country — which is smaller than the state of Connecticut — was already caught up in multiple crises, grappling with severe economic turmoil and political paralysis. And in a nation divided mainly between Muslims and Christians with a long history of violent sectarian and religious conflict, the time change decision immediately aggravated those deep rifts.
“Do the Lebanese people not have enough problems they are going through to add to them the problem of time?” the Greek Orthodox archbishop, Elias Odeh, said in his Sunday sermon, expressing sadness over how the issue had taken on a sectarian overtone.
Lebanon is divided among Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians, and smaller religious minorities. Though a 15-year civil war fought mainly between Muslims and Christian militias ended in 1990, the sectarian scars live on.
The decision to delay the time change was made on Thursday, the same day that Ramadan began.
After the outrage spilled into the new week, Prime Minister Mikati met with cabinet members on Monday afternoon — something he did not do before announcing the initial change — and announced that Lebanon would, indeed, switch to daylight saving time overnight between Wednesday and Thursday.
But the damage was already done.
Some Lebanese, who generally rely on a steady diet of dark humor to deal with the country’s dysfunctions, asked what was the point of breaking fast an hour earlier when some people didn’t even have food to eat. Others wondered if couples in mixed religious marriages would have to divide their homes into two time zones.
A map of the country circulating on social media showed the country divided into green, orange and yellow zones: green for +1 GMT, orange for +2 GMT and yellow where both time zones could co-exist.
“In the height of an economic crisis when people don’t even have their basic needs met and food to eat, look at what we’re arguing about,” said Myriam Sfeir, 50, director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University.
Ms. Sfeir said she missed a dentist’s appointment on Monday because she was going by daylight saving time while her dentist, in line with the leaders’ decree, was still on winter time.
She began asking beforehand whether an appointment is on “iPhone time or al-Berri time,” as some people have taken to calling the competing time zones. Others refer to Lebanon’s extended winter hours as BMT — Berri-Mikati Time.
Ms. Sfeir — a Christian who is fasting for Lent and who is married to a Muslim man who is not fasting for Ramadan — blamed the leaders for inflaming the sectarian tensions with the time conflict.
“This has nothing to do with religion,” she said. “This has to do with a state that make decisions without consulting anyone. But sectarianism has reared its head whether you like it or not.”
In other industries, the time change got complicated.
The national airline, Middle East Airlines, announced that flight departure times from Beirut’s international airport would be adjusted by an hour, in line with daylight saving time. A widely shared video from the airport showed a board with two different times on either side: one for flights and the other for taxis.
On Sunday night, students and teachers were at a loss about when classes would begin the next morning because of conflicting statements by the education minister.
Lebanon’s television channels chose sides, with secular ones like MTV and LBC deciding to abide by daylight saving time, while channels associated with Shiite Muslim parties remained on winter time.
Hassan Moraib, an influential Muslim cleric, accused the MTV and LBC channels of “racism and sectarianism” by not adhering to the government’s decision. He called on Muslims to boycott the channels.
The move to delay daylight saving time until after Ramadan is not without precedent in the Arab world.
The Palestinian Authority announced such a change this month, too. And Egypt, after banning daylight saving time for years, decided to bring it back but only for the end of April, once Ramadan is over.
The news in Lebanon came not in an official announcement made weeks in advance, but via a leaked video clip in which Mr. Berri is seen urging Mr. Mikati to make the change. Hours later, state media announced it.
“It was just a very populist approach to policymaking,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “You think this is going to distract people from the economic problems they are facing or that families are going hungry?”
The anger was less about shifting the time and more about how the decision making was emblematic of the way Lebanon’s leaders have governed for years, she added.
“There’s no time limit as to how far we can stretch the multiple crises,” she said. “We can just drag our feet, so what’s just one hour during Ramadan?”
For Roula Mouawad, the switch back to one time zone can’t come soon enough. The 52-year-old journalist has a flight to Paris on Tuesday. When she bought the ticket, it was scheduled for 4 p.m. But then she received a message that the time of the flight had changed to 3 p.m.
“But 3 on what time?” she said. “The 3 on the international time? Or 3 on the Berkati time?”
Berkati time, she explained, was yet a third iteration of Lebanese time, a melding of the names of the two officials behind the delay in daylight saving time.
Ms. Mouawad, who works for Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper, spoke at an elementary school on Monday, and it was all the children wanted to discuss. One 7-year-old said he went to the cinema with his parents to watch a 5 p.m. movie, but when they got there, it had already started.
“It has become the talk of a nation, this one hour,” Ms. Mouawad said. Referring to the politicians, she added, “And, meanwhile, they are taking us back 20 years.”
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