Ramadan holiday adds to Egypt’s anxieties

Egyptians shop in a market in Cairo on the eve of Ramadan.
(Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

CAIRO -- A muggy sunrise over Cairo on Wednesday ushered in the start of Egypt’s annual Ramadan season, when Muslims begin a monthlong period of fasting and religious reflection.

The question many here are asking: Will the revolution take time off for the holiday?

The military, which last week brought down Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, certainly hopes so. The military-led interim government is betting that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters will find it harder to sustain their protests demanding his reinstatement while simultaneously refraining from food, water and cigarettes from dawn to dusk.

In most Muslim countries, the government and economy noticeably slow down during Ramadan as people prefer to sleep during the day and spend the nights with family members and friends breaking the fast.


With the political turmoil since last week’s military coup, many Egyptians say they’re not particularly in a holiday mood this year.

But in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Cairo stronghold of Rabaa, where thousands of Morsi supporters have camped out for a week, most are vowing to keep their sit-in alive even as they fast in temperatures that are expected to hit 100 degrees in the coming days.

Many said that celebrating Ramadan in makeshift tents on the streets will give the holiday greater religious meaning.

“This feels like a holy pilgrimage’’ said Eneyat El Shenway, 38, a teacher and mother of five. Usually at this time of year she would be cleaning the house back in the city of Mansoura, finishing last-minute shopping for special foods, decorating the family dinner table and cooking her children’s favorite dishes, including kofta, duck and macaroni.

Instead the family is fasting under a carpet-covered tent perched on a traffic median in the middle of Rabaa.

“We can forgo all the things we usually enjoy for the sake of our country,’’ she said. “Even if we eat nothing but water and dates, this year we are 1,000 times happier.”

Muslim Brotherhood officials said they were doing their best to give a holiday atmosphere to the protest encampment, decorating tents, laying carpets on the asphalt and planning nighttime soccer matches. White lines have been painted on the streets pointing to the direction of Mecca in preparation for mass prayers.


Charities are setting up tables of free food for the protesters, many of whom come from outside Cairo.

But because Ramadan is seen as a time of brotherhood, charity and equality, ardent Muslims might find it difficult to reconcile the holiday with anti-military protests and calls for vengeance. Harming or killing other Muslims is especially taboo.

By the same token, the military might find itself more restrained during the holiday. Launching a crackdown against the protesters, such as the one Monday that killed at least 51 people, could trigger a public backlash.

During Ramadan, it’s not uncommon for violence and crime to drop, partly because people are physically weaker and more focused on religion. During the U.S. occupation of Iraq, for example, attacks against American troops usually dipped during Ramadan. A study in Saudi Arabia found that men were less likely to beat their wives during the holiday.

Other research, however, suggests that fasting and giving up vices such as cigarettes can make people more irritable and intolerant during Ramadan. In 2009, a church burning in Egypt was attributed to the anti-Christian sentiments whipped up during holiday.

In the Palestinian territories, militant attacks against Israel’s occupation have often spiked during Ramadan out of a belief that if a Muslim dies as a martyr during the holiday, the rewards in heaven are even greater.


Asked if the family considered going home for the holiday and returning to protest after Ramadan, El Shenway shook her head and said, “I’d be a traitor.”


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