There’s an argument in Beirut about when to start the weekend.
What might seem a relatively trivial matter for a country whose economy has been hammered by the war next door in Syria is anything but, given Lebanon’s delicate power balance. The row over when to finish work for the week is political and religious. It’s about sectarianism, not hedonism.
The religious leader of the Sunni Muslim community wants to restore Friday as the day of rest and prayer. He endorsed a campaign to pressure the prime minister, also a Sunni, to revoke a law regulating working hours for civil servants. Christian, Shiite Muslim and many Sunni politicians have largely steered clear of the issue over the Saturday-Sunday weekend, unique among Arab countries in the Middle East, to avoid inflaming sectarian tensions.
“When you’re exhausted, this provokes conflicts — the small problem becomes a big conflict,” Amin Gemayel, Lebanon’s president between 1982 and 1988, said in an interview in his Maronite Christian hometown of Bikfaya in the mountains east of Beirut. “Permanently we’ve had to struggle, to resist what’s going on in the region. In Lebanon we are able to resist until now. The religious dimension is becoming difficult, becoming a cause of distrust, a cause of conflicts.”
The dispute is another test of the political settlement that ended Lebanon’s civil war almost three decades ago by distributing power among religious sects. It comes at a time when unprecedented regional volatility is washing across its borders.
There’s rare talk of Lebanon disintegrating into all-out fighting again. But there’s also a wider warning for anyone trying to fathom a peace for Syria or Iraq: superficial coexistence in place of true reconciliation is just a lesser evil.
A Mediterranean city full of bars, cafes and restaurants, where young women sip aperitifs while muezzins call others to mosque, Beirut is used to being caught in the crosswinds. External forces have always weighed on the Lebanese experiment, whether the Syrian regime or Israelis occupying the south.
Different sects in the city are jostling for greater influence. The Shiites have been emboldened by the increased political power of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in the face of U.S. efforts to quash the group. Sunnis have grown in number with the influx of more than 1 million refugees from Syria and say they’ve been marginalized.
A member of Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s party proposed in August to make civil servants work 15 minutes more for four days of the week to allow three hours work on Friday so Muslims could attend prayer.
That isn’t enough for those pushing for Friday and Sunday to be days off, with work on Saturday. The Grand Mufti’s picture appears on posters around the city along with men kneeling at prayer and the slogan “The Friday weekend is a right that should be approved.”
“If Hariri doesn’t make Friday the weekend, he will lose,” said Hassan Makkawi, 72, the Sunni owner of a candy shop. “The Sunnis have been neglected for a long time. Their rights have been trampled on. It’s time to start taking them back and the Friday weekend is one step in that direction.”
Next to him on the street just up the hill from Beirut’s downtown area of five-star hotels, French-style brasseries and sports-car showrooms, Hussein Hammoud, 30, a Shiite electrician, didn’t want religion to encroach on Lebanese tradition.
“I’m Muslim and I disagree,” he said. “You cannot have a split weekend. This would mean not being able to enjoy our days off.”
Greater Beirut is home to about a third of Lebanon’s 6 million people. The rule of thumb was that Christians, Sunnis and Shiites each made up about a third of the population, though that was distorted first by the influx of Palestinians after 1948 and, more recently, of the Syrians. There hasn’t been a census since 1932.
Mosques and churches sit beside one another among the city’s skyscrapers and housing blocks. Arriving downtown at night, a visitor is greeted by the giant illuminated Mohammed Al-Amin mosque funded by Rafiq Hariri. The father of the current premier, he was assassinated in 2005. Next to it, the cross on the Saint George Maronite Cathedral points to the sky alongside the mosque’s minarets.
It’s easy to overlook the bullet holes from the 1975-1990 civil war that pockmark other buildings. One of them, now known as Beit Beirut, was in no-man’s land and used by snipers. It’s now a museum and gallery.
An exhibition this month aims to help heal the lingering wounds, according to artist Zena El-Khalil, who grew up outside Lebanon and returned in 1994. She blames the legacy of conflict for a “dysfunctional” society and political system, albeit amid steps to end paralysis this year with the appointment of a new president and hopes for the budget getting through parliament for the first time in more than a decade.
“When the war ended, we moved straight into collective amnesia,” said El-Khalil, 41, who visited her family home in the south for the first time in 2000 after it was turned into a detention center during the war. “Now we’re seeing the negative repercussions of not having that reconciliation. The pain is still the elephant in the room.”
Others, too, are delving into the Beirut psyche to remind people of how sectarian tension can transform often trivial incidents into open conflict.
A movie called “The Insult” by director Ziad Doueiri won an award at this year’s Venice Film Festival. In it, a bust-up over a drainpipe between a Christian car mechanic and a Palestinian refugee leads to confrontation, violence and both men airing their prejudices in court.
After watching the movie at Beirut Souks one evening last week, Farouk El-Khalil, 67, said it showed the lingering mistrust among the Lebanese since the war. He is a Druze, one of five groups in the country associated with Islam.
“It is still unreconciled,” said El-Khalil. “It’s because we are governed by others that dictate what should happen here, externally. At times it’s the Arab countries. At times it’s Europe or America. We’ve never really governed ourselves fully.”
At his Phalange party offices outside Beirut, former President Gemayel just hopes the country’s culture of democracy can prevail. Even if the price so often is political paralysis.
“That’s why the small demands take another dimension,” said Gemayal, 75, who took over from his brother after his assassination in 1982. “Why today and not yesterday?”
“There’s a real struggle in Lebanon between the culture of democracy and the regional phenomenon of exacerbated religious conflict,” he said. “There’s a race. I don’t know who will succeed.”
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