From Syria to Libya and Egypt, the uprisings and unrest gripping the Arab world have cast a pall on the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when the traditional focus on piety will likely be eclipsed by more unrest.
Food prices — part of the economic hardships that catalyzed the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders — are still climbing. And protesters have shown little patience for conciliatory gestures by governments after decades of empty promises.
With momentum strong to drive out authoritarian regimes, there is no sign that opposition forces will ease up on protests — even with the difficulties of the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting that begins today.
Predictions of a tense Ramadan have already started to be realized.
Libyan rebels are turning their weapons on each other, dimming hopes for the overthrow of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Syrian security forces escalated their crackdown on protesters the day before Ramadan on Sunday, killing more than 70 people. And the violence in Syria is only expected to intensify throughout the holy month.
In Egypt, Cairo’s Tahrir Square is once again a tent encampment and the joyous celebrations that accompanied Hosni Mubarak’s fall on Feb. 11 have given way to anger and impatience over the slow pace of change.
In response to the pressure from a new round of protests, the judiciary is promising to put Mubarak, his security chief and his two sons on trial this week for a range of charges from corruption to ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising. The hearings are to be carried live on state television, broadcasts that could easily outshine the Ramadan television serials that Egyptians love to watch during the month.
Ramadan falls this year during the scorching summer, when tempers already running hot could easily boil over, especially as Egyptians complain about the continued rise in food prices and the general economic malaise after the uprising. Food prices typically spike during Ramadan, and the extravagant dinners many put on to break the daily fast drive a deep hole in household budgets.
“Before the revolution, Egyptians were like kindling waiting for a match,” said Mahmoud El-Askalany with the consumer group Citizens Against the High Cost of Living. He was talking about the sense of frustration over soaring prices of food and consumer goods, as well as the gross income inequality and nepotism that prevailed before the Arab uprisings.
“If anyone thinks that this has changed, they’d be wrong,” El-Askalany said. “The same rage we saw then can surface again, and worse.”
Still, Egyptians have not lost their sense of humor. In the annual tradition of naming dates after celebrities, they have dubbed the cheapest, least desirable variety of the fruit “Hosni Mubarak” this year.
“They’re the lousiest of them all,” said date vendor Sherif Ramadan, flicking one of the shriveled brown pellets back into a burlap sack with the others. Even though they sell for 2.2 pounds, and dates are a traditional food for Ramadan, “there’s no demand for them,” he says.
In Syria, protests and the government’s violent crackdown on them are expected to escalate during the month ahead, deepening a spiral of violence that has already killed at least 1,600 people since the uprising began in mid-March.
Libya’s civil war remains mired in a stalemate, and across the oil-rich OPEC member, the fighting has battered what was once an economy on the cusp of sharp growth.