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Egyptians' missing Ramadan spirit

Political upheaval and economic malaise have diminished holy month celebrations.

Last Modified: 11 Jul 2013 17:44
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A poster of deposed president Morsi as supporters wait to break fast on the first day of Ramadan [Reuters]

Cairo, Egypt - While the notions of peace and cooperation are celebrated in the Muslim world at this time of year, Egyptians are struggling with those concepts during the holy month of Ramadan after the divisive military overthrow of the elected government.

"O Allah, spill your anger on those who seek to harm Egypt, and extend your grace to those who want its prosperity. O Allah, destroy those who don't want your laws carried out in this country," said Yosri Ackad, a supporter of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, as he led prayers on the first day of Ramadan.

Symbolising the vast divisions within Egypt at the moment, the retired physician was reprimanded after prayers by fellow worshipers in Cairo's upper-class neighbourhood of Maadi for "bringing politics into the house of god", and "imposing the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology on others".

No one feels like celebrating anything, not even Ramadan. It’s a very bad season.

Waleed Abdel-Tawab, 39-year-old fanous vendor

Egypt's Muslim population, which makes up the majority of its 84 million citizens, has always taken pride in the festive spirit in which it greets Ramadan. But this year's joy at the arrival of Islam's month of fasting was washed away by the grimness of the country's polarising politics, and the graveness of its economic hardships.

Egyptians this year seem less keen to sustain their centuries-old traditions that symbolise Ramadan, and that differentiate the country from the region as a whole. Streets are not lit by the Ramadan-stamp of multicolored glass lanterns, called fanous, and there are fewer stands selling the holy month’s staple desserts.

Even the daily visits of el-mesaharrati - men who wonder the streets just before sunrise to call on people to have their day's final meal before fasting till sunset - are not welcomed with the same enthusiasm.

Ominous future

Public euphoria and days of jubilation by some only a week ago following the ouster of Morsi, the country's first elected president, quickly withered away amid mounting concerns about the future.

The shooting deaths of more 50 Morsi supporters by the army on Monday and the Islamists determination to challenge a military-imposed “roadmap” leading to early presidential elections have raised fears over the country's young democratic path.

"No one feels like celebrating anything, not even Ramadan," said disheartened Waleed Abdel-Tawab, a 39-year-old fanous vendor, as dozens of lanterns dangled from his shop ceiling in the upscale Mohandiseen neighborhood of Giza.

"It’s a very bad season. We should have been able to sell all of our stock by the first two days of Ramadan. If they're not sold by now, they won't be sold at all. We'll only be able to sell 60 percent of our stock this year," he said.

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Clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents are expected to continue, despite the deaths of more than a 100 people since June 30, when massive demonstrations were staged demanding early presidential elections and an end to Morsi's rule, just a year after he came to power. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is calling for nationwide protests to restore him to power, while the interim government cracks down on its senior members, widening the ongoing rift.

Egypt's prosecutor officer has ordered the arrest of the Brotherhood's general guide, Mohamed Badie, his deputy Mahmoud Ezzat, as well as party leaders Essam El-Erian and Mohamed El-Beltagy for inciting violence outside the Republican Guard headquarters, where the army opened fire at a pro-Morsi sit-in, killing more than 52 people and wounding hundreds of others.

Shortly after Morsi's expulsion, Islamist television channels were taken off air, their staff detained, though many were later released. Most stations remain off the air.

"We thought it was for a day or two to avoid further violence, but it in fact fueled further polarisation," said Haleema Abdul-Baset, a 68-year-old pro-Morsi housewife. "And its Ramadan now without religious television channels. I hope this makes them feel good," she said bitterly.

Economic impact

It's not only the country's political turmoil that has dampened spirits during the holy month. Egypt has battled a moribund economy for more than two years.

People buy the most at the beginning of Ramadan, and they're still buying, but much less. Raw material costs have gone up, too. This Ramadan is worse than any other.

Ayman Abdullah Mahmoud, 34-year-old patisserie

The tourism sector - which amounts to about 11.3 percent of the country's GDP - has tanked since the revolution that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Foreign direct investment has also faltered.

Together, this has led to a 60 percent fall in Egypt's foreign reserves, compared to 2010 levels.

Egypt's inflation rate in June accelerated to a two-year high of 9.8 percent, compared to 8.2 percent in May, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. Consumer prices rose to 0.9 percent according to the official agency.

Ayman Abdullah Mahmoud, a 34-year-old patisserie in Nasr City, not far from the Republican Guard's headquarters, said purchasing power is down by about 60 percent from usual Ramadan spending.

"People buy the most at the beginning of Ramadan, and they're still buying, but much less," he said, citing flattened morale and higher prices.

"A kilo of kunafa [Arab pastry] was sold at 6 Egyptian pounds last year [$0.86], and is this year 1.5 or 2 pounds more expensive, depending on where you get them. It’s costing us more to make them. Raw material costs have gone up, too," Mahmoud said. "This Ramadan is worse than any other."

Across from him, a merchant selling dates and nuts gave a similar dismal assessment. "Since our nuts are mostly imported from the US, and because the pound kept falling in value, it was costing us more to bring them in. Prices are up about 5 percent,” said Ahmed Hassan, 25.

A nut and date shop in Nasr City [Dahlia Kholaif/Al Jazeera]

Even the cultural scene - which is vibrant during the month with pan-Arab concerts and events of sufi tanura dancing and singing - seems quieter.

But that hasn’t stopped the El-Genaina theatre, part of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy, or the Cultural Resource, a regional non-profit organisation that encourages pan-Arab cultural exchanges. It plans to soldier on with its normal schedule, despite the sour mood caused by political uncertainty and economic doldrums.

"I don't think I’ve heard of any other events during Ramadan, perhaps one more, but we try to act as if everything is normal," Charles Akl, the theatre's director, told Al Jazeera.

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Al Jazeera
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