BEIRUT: A recent decision by Lebanon’s Parliament to adopt a Western style weekend has renewed a near-century-long debate about weekend days and equality among Christians and Muslims in the religiously diversified country.
Parliament passed on July 18 the salary scale bill and new tax measures in two laws. Article 23 of Law 46, issued on July 21 2017, amended the official business hours in public institutions to be 35 hours per week instead of 32 hours. Public servants will work from 8 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. from Monday to Thursday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday.
Previously, government offices would open their doors for six hours from Monday through Thursday, for three hours on Friday and for five hours on Saturday. The three-hour working day on Friday was designed for Muslim employees to leave by 11 a.m. to attend Friday prayers, however, all employees, regardless of faith were allowed to leave.
The new law, recently published in the Official Gazette, stipulated Friday as a working day, however, Muslim employees will be able to take a two-hour leave to attend prayer.
As government officials have issued internal memoranda in order for the new working schedules to enter into effect, many of Lebanon’s Muslim community have demanded Friday to be granted as an official holiday.
Clerics have recently held a number of meetings that included local community officials like mayors and mukhtars from across the country, demanding Friday become an official weekly holiday. Many mayors have repetitively told media outlets that they will not implement the new system and that they will opt for the Friday-Sunday off-days in their institutions.
Opponents to the new arrangement have suggested that working on Friday disturbs the equality between Muslims and Christians in the country. They have maintained that “Friday is a weekly feast, just like Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr.”
In the wake of the recent give-and-take on the issue, Future Movement MP Ammar Houri Tuesday put forward an amendment to the office hours, proposing a 34-hour week, with hours from 8 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday.
Houri expected, in a phone interview with The Daily Star, that his proposal would soothe the recently surfaced concerns, dismissing them as mere residues of “frustration among members of a religious group in the country.” “This [proposal to amend the timings] would grant employees the freedom to practice their religious rites.”
Houri praised the new measures included in the Salary Scale bill as “reformist”, saying the redesigned working schedule will boost the economy. His proposal will be discussed at Parliament’s next session, which is still to be scheduled.
Regardless of the heated debate on supposedly preserving the religious identity of Muslims in Lebanon, the newly-suggested 5-day workweek for public sector employees appears to have joined the global trend, which started in early twentieth century, granting employees the right to have two days as a weekly leave.
Lebanon is not exception as many countries with different cultures have recently been adopting Western-style weekends. Most Arab and majority Muslims countries have shifted the workweeks after the onset of the new millennium to meet financial international needs. Tunisia, a Muslim country with a secular ruling system, officially implements a Sunday-only workweek. In Mauritania and Morocco, weekend is de facto European style.
The private sector in Lebanon seems to have overcome the stirred up debate over Friday, even among Muslim business owners. Local banks, other financial institutions and branches of international companies find the European-style weekend convenient for their business needs. They are closed on Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are no different. Muslim shop owners in Beirut, as well as other towns and cities across the country leave their customers a small sign on the facades of their shops reading “We will be back after prayer,” when closing on Friday noon.
For these small business owners, a two-day weekend is out of the question. “I open for six days and I can barely afford to keep my business running,” an owner of an electrical appliances shop, in his sixties, told The Daily Star while sitting in front of his shop in Basta neighborhood close to Downtown Beirut. “I sometimes open on Sunday morning perhaps I can make some more money,” he said.
In Beirut’s Mazraah neighborhood, Abu Ahmad, a jewelry shop owner, told The Daily Star that the jewelers union asks him and other jewelers not buy or sell products after Saturday noon. “It is because of the standard price for the gold and silver ounces set according to the stock market which are closed on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday,” he explains, adding that if it were to him, he would definitely work more on Saturday. “Closing on Friday is out of the question.”
However, for many of the protesting voices, closing on Saturday and Sunday is “to follow the traditions of the Christians and Jews.” Saturday, or Shabbath, has been a holy day for around six thousand years. The Christian “rest day” is Sunday.
However, Islamic texts do not explicitly stipulate Friday as a rest day, although, for centuries, under the rule of Islamic Empires, Friday has been the weekly break as it is dedicated for Friday prayers. Two verses in the Qoran’s 62nd al-Jomaa (or Friday) chapter dictates, in verses nine and 10, Muslims should leave all matters at hand and head to pray on Friday noon before they can resume their day-to-day activities.
The issue of having Friday instead of Saturday as a day-off has long been a contentious issue in Lebanon. In the twenties, during the period of French mandate, authorities attempted to implement an official western style weekend that was met by ire from Muslim scholars and dignitaries. The procedure was later dropped in favor of making Sunday holiday and Friday and Saturday as partial working days.
A source at the Finance Ministry said that the newly shuffled and rearranged work week will about LL 100 billion (nearly $65 million) annually from public funds. It is also expected to boost the productivity of the public servants, many of whom will be spared the trouble of commuting from their hometowns to Beirut for the sixth working day.
Education institutions that are mostly affiliated with religious organizations will continue to reflect the diversity of the Lebanese community in their weekend days. Private schools will continue to have different weekly days off, basically for reasons related to their religious affiliation.
Many private schools already have a European style school-week. Missionary and church-affiliated schools are an example. Institutions affiliated with Islamic associations implement the Friday-Sunday system. Timings in public schools differ according to the affiliations of the communities in which they are found.
The Daily Star sought to ask Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh whether the new Saturday-Sunday schedule would also run for schools, however, he was unavailable for a comment.
Meanwhile, many Lebanese are joking and suggesting that a three day weekend can bring the debate to an end. “They can make Friday, Saturday and Sunday a holiday to please all sides,” a Facebook user said. Some teachers are dreaming of a four-day work week, but “that would give the employed parents of students a heart attack,” a teacher said on Facebook.