Egypt’s Crisis: Ramadan Heat Cools Tensions in Cairo, for Now

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With the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Egypt‘s explosive political crisis—which this week saw pitched street battles and dozens killed—has settled down to a slightly less volatile simmer. In what has become a recurring daily tableau, supporters and opponents of deposed President Mohamed Morsi continue to hold noisy rallies in different corners of Cairo—each claiming to represent the legitimate will of the Egyptian people and each viewing the other side as a threat to the future of Egyptian democracy.

Meanwhile the military-backed transitional government that replaced Morsi July 3 continues to plow forward without him or his Muslim Brotherhood as interim President Adly Mansour began assembling his cabinet.

Friday—the start of the weekend in the Muslim world—tends to be weekly highpoint for Egyptian protest action. But this Friday, July 12, was the first protest Friday since the start of Ramadan—when devout Muslims abstain from any sort of consumption (eating, drinking or smoking) from dawn to dusk each day. Ramadan at any time of the year is already a punishing endurance test and that will only be harder for the next several years as the month moves through the heart of the summer. The Islamic calendar shifts about 11 days earlier each year compared to the Gregorian calendar.

How is it affecting the events unfolding on Cairo’s streets?

In August 2011, a protest push against the post-Mubarak rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ran straight into the Ramadan wall. The protesters—who were seeking a quick transition to civilian rule—suffered from internal divisions and a failure to rekindle the energy of the original Egyptian revolution that had forced out entrenched dictator Hosni Mubarak in just 18 days in February. Within a few days of the start of Ramadan, the protesters had packed up their tents in Tahrir Square and gone home.

Among supporters of the new regime, there’s a hope that a month of fasting under the July sun will sap the determination of the Brotherhood’s defiant supporters. However, Ramadan also tends to push this already nocturnal megacity even further onto a nighttime schedule. So there’s a chance that instead of dampening the violent passions of the protesters, it will merely allow Cairenes from rival camps to sleep through the daytime heat and begin attacking each other after midnight.

But so far the Brotherhood has proven able to keep up strong numbers for their open-ended public sit-in outside the Rabaa Adaweya mosque in the northeast Cairo district of Nasr City. They have organized mass communal sunset meals; the homilies to devotion and sacrifice that define this holy period now are tinged with messages touting the larger political battle. Following the communal noon prayers on July 10, a speaker on stage attempted to rally his dehydrated charges. “I know it’s Ramadan. I know your hardships are many. But be patient brothers, stand your ground and cling to each other,” he told them. “We’re not going home. Nobody is going home!”

On July 12, Islamist preacher Safwat Hegazy—in an incendiary sermon—vowed that the Brotherhood cadres would never abandon their cause, promising their willingness to “die as martyrs” in order to return Morsi to the presidential palace. Hegazy warned that the military—which ousted Morsi by force following several days of unprecedented protests against his rule—would eventually bow to the Brotherhood’s street pressure, “whether they want to or not.”

The Brotherhood—already outraged by what they label a blatant coup against a democratically elected president—has been further embittered by what they claim are growing after-the-fact signs that Morsi was set up to fail by other factions within the Egyptian establishment. International media reports have noted that a chronic gasoline shortage seemed to improve almost immediately after Morsi was pushed out by the military. Similarly the past week has seen a dramatic return to duty by a number of uniformed police officers who spent most of the past two years shirking their responsibilities.

The Brotherhood also seems keen to take the debate over Morsi’s legitimacy to the international stage. This week, the group’s open-ended sit-in unveiled a number of banners in English with slogans such as “People power vs Military Might.” Several European governments have already labeled Morsi’s ouster as illegitimate while the Obama Administration has struggled to stay publicly non-committal. On Friday, both the German and U.S. governments publicly called for the release of Morsi—who has been detained in an undisclosed located since the night of July 3 when the military made its move.

As the crisis has dragged on, Mansour has repeatedly stated that he wanted the venerable Islamist organization to rejoin the Egyptian political family and play a role in his transitional government. But those olive branches have been combined with an accelerated crackdown on the Brotherhood’s leadership ranks. Earlier this week, arrest warrants were issued for a host of senior Brotherhood leaders, including Hegazy and Supreme Guide Mohammed Badea.

However, it seems unlikely that authorities will be able to arrest Badea or any of the other targeted leaders without serious bloodshed. Many of the group’s leaders are believed to be taking shelter in or near the Rabaa Adaweya mosque–essentially untouchable in the midst of tens of thousands of their followers.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.