A decision taken by the Lebanese caretaker government— postponing the shift to daylight savings time until midnight on April 21st— has sparked widespread controversy in Lebanon at the popular, media, and political levels.
On March 23rd, Al Jadeed TV shared a video from the meeting between Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati on its social media platforms. The footage showed that Berri asked Mikati to delay the start of daylight savings time until after the holy month of Ramadan.
Berri claimed that many countries, including Egypt, are keeping the clock the same. Accordingly, Berri and Mikati wanted to postpone the clock shift by one month out of consideration for the Muslims during Ramadan. Muslims in Lebanon break their fast at 6 p.m. according to winter time; if summer time is adopted, the time for breaking the fast becomes 7 p.m.
In the same video, Mikati claimed he also proposed to postpone the start of daylight savings time from the last Saturday of March to the last Saturday of April. Berri asked him to implement what he wanted to do, but Mikati replied that it was too late to implement this decision this year because it affects many sectors, such as flight schedules.
Despite this, and after the meeting between Presidents Berri and Mikati, the Secretary General of the Council of Ministers announced the postponement of shifting the local time by one hour until midnight on April 20 and 21, 2023, "based on the exceptional approval issued by the Prime Minister."
This decision and the leaked video spread widely among the Lebanese, sparking loud reactions and a sharp division of opinion. And since the justification of the decision was religious, the course of discussion and debate took on a sectarian character par excellence.
Many Muslims welcomed the decision because it came mainly in observance of fasting during Ramadan. At the same time, Christians refused to admit the decision and boycotted it at the popular, media, political, and even institutional levels.
For example, the MTV channel announced that it is not committed to what it called the "Berri-Mikati" time but rather to "universal time," as it put it. The same decision was taken by other Lebanese TV channels owned by Christian political parties or individuals, such as LBCI and OTV, in addition to several news websites and radio stations.
Moreover, MTV claimed it contacted the world's time zone data coordinator and editor Paul Eggert and said he has yet to receive an official letter from the Lebanese government.
Eggert added that the government should have taken that decision one year before and must inform the time zone database maintainers. The time zone database for the year 2023 was issued without knowing the Lebanese government’s decision, which negatively affects several areas, most notably energy consumption, flight schedules, phones, and computers.
In the same context, the patriarchal edifice in Bkerke announced its commitment to the daylight savings time system under Mar Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, patriarch of the Maronites in Lebanon.
The statement issued by the media office of the edifice described the government's decision as impromptu. It said it was taken "without consultation with all Lebanese components and without regard for international standards."
As a result of this decision, most of the dioceses, archdioceses, and monasteries in all Lebanese regions announced that they would adopt the summer time to determine prayer and religious events times. In addition, many Christian schools decided not to abide by the Lebanese government's decision and to defend the "universal time" as they described it, in line with the patriarchal edifice decision.
On the political level, the Christian parties strongly rejected the government's decision, considering it arbitrary and illegal, especially after the spread of a video that showed how this decision was taken between Presidents Berri and Mikati.
Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, called on the government to immediately reverse the decision. He linked his criticism of the decision to the consequent obstacles on the practical and technical levels in various fields.
Additionally, he said that the only decision issued by the Lebanese government in this regard was taken on August 20, 1998, which stipulates moving the clock forward by one hour on the last weekend of March every year. This means that the decision of President Mikati and the memorandum of the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers are unconstitutional and illegal.
Finally, he called on all officials to abide by adopting daylight savings time. He stressed that the issue is not religious but rather related to public order and the application of the constitution.
Representative Nadim Gemayel directed a harsh criticism of the decision, which went beyond the timing issue to describe the general political situation in Lebanon.
"We won't stick to their timing. They have their timing; we have our timing. They have their mini-state, we have our Lebanon," Gemayel expressed his position on the decision.
However, the most controversial reaction was a "fragmented" video of a speech delivered by Representative Gebran Bassil, Leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The address came during a symposium entitled "Mind to Mind," during which Bassil answered questions about the political situation in Lebanon.
In the fragmented video, Gebran Bassil called for the adoption of universal time and said that we must adopt the timing of the "developed and civilized" and not the timing of the "backward and reactionaries."
The spread of the video on social media angered the Lebanese Muslims because they thought Bassil had described them as reactionary and backward, especially since the decision was taken for the sake of Ramadan by two Muslim presidents and in light of the vacancy of a Christian presidential position in Lebanon.
However, Bassil reiterated that the problem is not sectarian but rather "arrogance and self-affirmation." He claimed that the "retards" were the ones who took the decision in this way and held them responsible for turning the problem into sectarian through the media. Bassil also stressed that the problem with those who made the decision is with their concept of the country and running the state, criticizing the method of deciding between Presidents Berri and Mikati.
In this context, Leila Nicolas, a professor of international relations at the Lebanese University, indicated that what happened is a kind of "populism that creates crises to feed on."
Moreover, she accused the Lebanese of being busy with the time issue: "They made an amendment to the customs dollar for cars and made it 8,000 LBP because they brought a car deal from abroad, and they covered up the issue of consensual binding at the airport, and there may be something worse.”
The referred files are official decisions by Minister of Finance Youssef Khalil and Minister of Public Works and Transport Ali Hamiyah. Both ministers belong to President Berri's coalition.
Following massive public and official pressure, Prime Minister Najib Mikati called the cabinet to convene on Monday, 3/27/2023. The topic of summertime was the only item on its agenda.
After the end of the cabinet session, Prime Minister Mikati delivered a speech in which he announced that the cabinet had decided to maintain daylight saving time and that the new time would start at midnight next Thursday.
During the speech, President Mikati claimed that the decision was preceded by intensive meetings over months, with the participation of ministers and stakeholders. The aim was to rest those fasting during Ramadan for an hour. Nevertheless, "some considered the decision a challenge to him and gave it a dimension that I had never imagined, but I certainly did not decide with a sectarian or religious dimension."
In addition, he stressed that the problem of time had been resolved to confront the sectarian pumping and silence it. Yet, everyone must assume their national responsibilities in protecting civil peace, the national economy, and the work of public utilities.
After retracting the decision, the Progressive Socialist Party said it "highly appreciates the responsible stance of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati" and added that the retraction ended the problem and the subsequent dangerous inflaming of sectarian discourse.
Likewise, the "National Bloc" welcomed the Cabinet's decision and saw it as "a victory for the logic of reason and the national interest over the logic of populist and sectarian bidding." Furthermore, it held Mikati and Berri "responsible for the political and sectarian tensions, the additional confusion of the Lebanese economy, and the damage to its credibility."
Therefore, last Sunday, the Lebanese woke up to two different times: summer, universal or Christian time, and winter, Islamic, or Berri-Mikati time, as the Lebanese described on social media, mocking their conditions and problems as usual.
Of course, the timing dilemma had its share of satirical clips and sketches.
One skit features a man standing in the street in the middle of two areas: one with a Muslim majority on the right and another with a Christian majority on the left. He turned to the left and asked someone to show him the time on his phone; it turned out to be 3:30. After that, he returned to the opposite side and asked one of them to show him the time on his phone: it was 2:30.
Another commentator mocked, "I wonder when our children study history (they will find) that the civil war broke out in Lebanon in 2023 because the clock was not brought forward."
At the same time, many expressed their fear of the existence of a high level of abolitionist sectarian thought whose feelings are easily tickled and, therefore, easy to employ politically upon request.
For example, some commentators were so enraged by the decision that they feared the weekend in Lebanon would be "Friday instead of Sunday" and used terms such as "the Islamization of Lebanon." These fears come in light of a vacuum at the level of the presidency of the Lebanese Republic, the highest site for Christians in the Lebanese state.
Far from the Lebanese sectarianism that intoxicates the mind and prevents it from thinking freely, others saw that what happened was purely political and that some used sectarian slogans for specific partisan interests.
Furthermore, they also considered the sectarian debate utterly absurd and irrational, especially while Lebanon suffers from a crisis that may not have been witnessed at all levels in its history.
In conclusion, the sectarian debate flared up again in Lebanon at the political and popular level, as it happened during primary elections and acute conditions in the country. Strangely, this time Lebanon was divided because of the time, at least as it appears.
The most crucial question concerning Lebanon, the state, and society remains: Is the political sectarianism system, which is based on allocating public positions according to sects, the one that incites religious emotions among Lebanese for its interests? Or is Lebanon's genesis sectarian, and hence the political sectarianism system, the best way to administer the country?
Edited By: Ashelyn Wagner
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