Ramadan may hold the key to the Arab Spring

Most observers of Arab politics are betting that the special practices of Ramadan are likely to stir the pot - but only after dark.

July 24, 2011 18:12
Hama, Syria

Syria protest 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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It is less than two weeks until the start of Ramadan, and both opposition leaders and governments are asking themselves, will it bring a surge of popular protests spurred by religious fervor or pass quietly as hungry and thirsty people avoid the sweltering streets?

With Arab Spring now in its seventh month and showing signs of stalling, the Muslim month of fasting, prayer and piety could give new life to the wave of unrest or bring it to a conclusion. But most observers of Arab politics are betting that the special practices of Ramadan are likely to stir the pot - but only after dark.

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"In Yemen, the demonstrations will increase, they’ll flare up," Ahmad Saif, executive director of the Sheba Center for Strategic Studies (SCSS), a Sanaa-based think tank, told The Media Line. "Instead of them ending at nine in the evening, they will continue until four in the morning."

Fasting during daylight on Ramadan, the month when the first verses of the Koran are believed to have been delivered to the Prophet Muhammad, is one of the five tenants of Islamic belief. In the Muslim world, business grinds to a near halt, as believers spend their days resting and their nights praying, dining and watching popular television series produced especially for the holiday. Ramadan begins August 1 this year.

Over the past few weeks, the demonstrations in Yemen have lost their momentum, Saif said. Even though the agendas of protesters vary greatly from city to city, most agree that a gradual transition from the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, is better than a radical regime change that could result in Islamists taking control of the country, he added.

But Ramadan may rekindle the fighting spirit because Yemenis - like their fellow Muslims across the world - tend to stay awake at night for prayer and social gatherings. Saif explained that during Ramadan "the demonstrations won't occur because of religious sentiment, but simply because people will meet each other on the street."

In Syria, mosques have become the hub of demonstrations, a phenomenon that will only grow during Ramadan, said Muhammad Al-Masri, a researcher at the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in Amman.

"The mosque has acquired a new function in Syria," Al-Masri told The Media Line. "It’s less a religious center and more a place of gathering, like a public park in the West. If Syrians don't know if any demonstrations are scheduled, they say 'let's go to the mosque and see what's going on.’”

Special night-time prayers during Ramadan, known as Tarawih, are a popular activity in the Muslim world and will allow Syrians to congregate and organize on a nightly basis rather than once a week, Al-Masri said.

"Every evening will become like Friday prayers," he said. "By the end of Ramadan there will be huge demonstrations in Syria."   

Jordanian demonstrations are fundamentally different than Syrian, Al-Masri said, as they are organized by political parties and are not the result of spontaneous grassroots initiatives. However, the economic burden associated with Ramadan could have an effect on the Jordanian public, which has been struggling economically.

"Inflation grows during Ramadan because merchants raise their prices," Al-Masri said. "The economic burden may give people an excuse to demonstrate."

He added that demonstrations could spread next month if the government continues its "stupid" policy of cracking down on peaceful demonstrators at Jordan's weekly protests, as it did last Friday.

Historically, Ramadan is a time of social fermentation in the Arab world. Algeria, Somalia and Iraq have all witnessed an increase in political violence during the month of Ramadan in recent years. To tamp down possible unrest, governments often issue mass pardons and commute prison sentences. 

"Authorities will find it increasingly difficult to deal with protests without having repression associated with anti-religious tendencies," wrote Nour, author of the blog The Moor Next Door, which focuses on politics in North Africa. "There’s a high probability that Islamist groupings will become bolder and more confident during Ramadan."

Not everyone is looking with hope or trepidation on Ramadan. The Islamic calendar is lunar, meaning that months move across the seasons, so that summer Ramadans, when days are long and especially hot, are considered particularly difficult for devout Muslims. People may choose to lay low and pass the time with their families.

"Ramadan is a month of contemplation, social visits and an evaluation of everything that has happened," Mounira Fakhrou, a Shi'ite member of the Bahraini liberal opposition group, the National Democratic Action Society, told The Media Line.

In Bahrain, where a government-imposed state of emergency was lifted on June 1, demonstrations are limited to local skirmishes between Shi'ite protesters and the police in remote towns. Fakhrou predicted that even those protests may evaporate during Ramadan.

Even Shiite festivals like the death of the revered Imam Ali, celebrated on the 19th day of Ramadan, potentially serving as a lightening rod for conflict between Bahrain’s disaffected Shi'ite majority and the Sunni government, will likely be used as an opportunity to discuss issues rather than take to the streets, she said.

"Ramadan is a time of cooking and social gathering. That hasn't changed in 1,400 years," Fakhru noted, adding that the state-run national dialogue with the opposition is scheduled to end days before the month of fasting begins.  "The protests may resume in September … Even if the problems are solved before then, our hearts will remain injured and will take years to heal."  

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