The Lebanese government’s last-minute decision to delay the start of daylight savings time by a month until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan resulted in mass confusion Sunday.
With some institutions implementing the change while others refused, many Lebanese have found themselves in the position of juggling work and school schedules in different time zones — in a country that is just 88 kilometers (55 miles) at its widest point.
In some cases, the debate took on a sectarian nature, with many Christian politicians and institutions, including the small nation’s largest church, the Maronite Church, rejecting the move.
The small Mediterranean country normally sets its clocks forward an hour on the last Sunday in March, which aligns with most European countries.
However, on Thursday Lebanon’s government announced a decision by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati to push the start of daylight savings to April 21.
No reason was given for the decision, but a video of a meeting between Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri leaked to local media showed Berri asking Mikati to postpone the implementation of daylight savings time to allow Muslims to break their Ramadan fast an hour earlier.
Mikati responds that he had made a similar proposal but goes on to say that implementing the change would be difficult as it would cause problems in airline flight schedules, to which Berri interjects, “What flights?”
After the postponement of daylight savings was announced, Lebanon’s state airline, Middle East Airlines, said the departure times of all flights scheduled to leave from the Beirut airport between Sunday and April 21 would be advanced by an hour.
The country’s two cellular telephone networks sent messages to people asking them to change the settings of their clocks to manual instead of automatic in order for the time not to change at midnight, although in many cases the time advanced anyway.
While public institutions, in theory, are bound by the government’s decision, many private institutions, including TV stations, schools and businesses, announced that they would ignore the decision and move to daylight savings on Sunday as previously scheduled.
Even some public agencies refused to comply. Education Minister Abbas Halabi said in a statement Sunday evening that the decision was not legally valid because it had not been taken in a meeting of the Cabinet. If the government meets and approves the decision, he wrote, “we will be the first to implement it” but until then, “daylight saving time remains approved and applied in the educational sector.”
Soha Yazbek, a professor at the American University of Beirut, is among many parents who have found themselves and their children now bound to different schedules.
“So now I drop my kids to school at 8 am but arrive to my work 42 km away at 7:30 am and then I leave work at 5 pm but I arrive home an hour later at 7 pm!!” Yazbek wrote on Twitter, adding for the benefit of her non-Lebanese friends, “I have not gone mad, I just live in Wonderland.”
Haruka Naito, a Japanese non-governmental organization worker living in Beirut, discovered she has to be in two places at the same time on Monday morning.
“I had an 8 a.m. appointment and a 9 a.m. class, which will now happen at the same time,” she said. The 8 a.m. appointment for her residency paperwork is with a government agency following the official time, while her 9 a.m. Arabic class is with an institute that is expected to make the switch to daylight savings.
The schism has led to jokes about “Muslim time” and “Christian time,” while different internet search engines came up with different results early Sunday morning when queried about the current time in Lebanon.
While in many cases, the schism broke down along sectarian lines, some Muslims also objected to the change and pointed out that fasting is supposed to begin at dawn and end at sunset regardless of time zone.
Many saw the issue as a distraction from the country’s larger economic and political problems.
Lebanon is in the midst of the worst financial crisis in its modern history. Three quarters of the population lives in poverty and IMF officials recently warned the country could be headed for hyperinflation if no action is taken. Lebanon has been without a president since the term of President Michel Aoun ended in late October as the parliament has failed to elect a replacement since.