Lebanon's residents wake up to dual time zones

Sudden decision to defer switch to Daylight Saving Time has created yet another division in the troubled country

A clock tower in Beirut on Sunday after Lebanon's government announced it would not move clocks forward an hour. AFP
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Lebanon’s residents woke up in two different time zones on Sunday.

At midnight on Saturday, most phones automatically sprang forward an hour to adjust for the start of Daylight Saving Time, an annual switch usually made from the fourth Sunday of March.

But officially, according to Lebanese authorities, it was still 12am.

The time discrepancy has sowed peak disorientation in a small nation already reeling from an economic and political crisis and sectarian division. Now, residents have to co-ordinate appointments with government institutions, work meetings, school timings and brunch appointments on two different and overlapping domestic time zones.

When Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister and head of Parliament — both Muslims — agreed last-minute to an exceptional month-long postponement of moving the clock forward, it seemed like a gesture of goodwill.

The decision coincided with the start of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

A leaked video of the two leaders deciding on the time change showed Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri asking Najib Mikati, the caretaker Prime Minister, to delay springing forward for daylight savings in order to allow Muslims to break their fast an hour earlier.

“Instead of moving forward an hour and having it be 7, let it stay 6 until the end of Ramadan,” parliament's Speaker Nabih Berri is heard saying in the video released by local media outlet Megaphone.

“It’s too late, you have flights and the world and all sorts of problems,” Prime Minister Najib Mikati replies. “We can't do it now, it's difficult.”

Mr Berri verbally waves off Mr Mikati’s protests.

The near-unilateral nature of the decision highlights the disconnect and ineptitude that Lebanon’s citizens often say is displayed by the ruling elite.

The hasty announcement gave the Network Time Protocol — the international body for time zone regulation around the world — less than 48 hours to implement the decision, which has not yet been enforced.

Subsequently, the time on mobile phones in Lebanon jumped automatically forward by one hour, as they would have done before the government decision.

Those wishing to follow the official time would have to reset their mobile phones manually, according to text messages sent by Lebanon’s two telecommunication companies.

Sectarian rift

The government decision ignited heated political and sectarian arguments in the country.

A number of churches, schools, media outlets and Christian political leaders announced they would not abide by it.

Technically, state institutions are bound by the government decision to keep the clock back. But the caretaker ministry of education announced Sunday that all schools would instead shift forward according to Daylight Savings Time.

Suddenly, the Lebanese have been divided between following what people are popularly referring to as the “Muslim time zone” — the time as decided by Mr Berri and Mr Mikati — and a “Christian time zone”.

Justice Minister Henri Khoury condemned the decision — further illustrating the internal turmoil of Lebanon’s political establishment.

“This decision is … issued by an invalid authority and is illegal,” Mr Khoury said, calling for it to be reversed “to avoid the catastrophic risks that may result.”

“Lebanon is not an isolated island,” prominent news channel LBCI channel said on Saturday evening, while explaining why it would not abide by the government decision. “It is connected to a system based on a global clock to ensure that humanity as a whole is capable of communicating and working synchronously.”

The time dispute could have brought Lebanon to a political standstill if it was not already in a state of paralysis because of the inability of MPs to elect a president.

And it has only made life more confusing for impoverished Lebanese struggling with what the World Bank has called one of the worst economic crises in the modern world, not least keeping track of the multiple exchange rates that have emerged as the country's currency has collapsed.

“Honestly, I’m confused,” 21-year-old Shadia Zhgheib told The National. “My work told me to follow the automatic time change. And that seems easiest.”

Ms Zgheib, a waitress at a prominent dessert cafe, has a Muslim mother and a Christian father, so she observes holidays for both religions.

“I’m fasting right now for Ramadan, and I’ll break my fast at seven — on the Christian time,” she said. “Actually, I like that. It’s kind of beautiful."

Ultimately, it won't matter. The day's fast will be broken at sunset, whether clocks display a time of 6:00 pm or 7:00 pm.

Updated: March 26, 2023, 7:55 PM