Revolution a side show as rhythms of Ramadan take over in Cairo
Muslim Brotherhood clings grimly on to protest, while liberal groups divided as ever
Families gather to break their fast in Tahrir Square yesterday, the first Friday of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Photograph: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih
The rhythms of Ramadan prevail over the ebb and flow of the revolution.
Egyptians fast from dawn to dusk, breakfast, celebrate and shop by night, sleep late, work little, and talk politics during waking hours.
In Nasr City tens of thousands of men and women from the countryside and distant cities and towns pour into the vast Muslim Brotherhood encampment outside the small Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and break their fast with takeaway parcels of chicken and rice provided by wealthy supporters.
The demonstrators, demanding the reinstatement of deposed president Mohamed Morsi, have spent a long day in the baking heat, praying and dozing on mats under awnings and tents.
Demonstrators attending a counter iftar-demonstration called by the Tamarod (Rebel) movement gathers around the nearby Ittihadiya presidential palace where Morsi held court until driven from his offices by mass protests.
Some 10km away, central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the revolution, hosts a third, smaller iftar breakfast, attended by anti-Morsi activists. While the crowd at Rabaa al- Adawiya has grown over the past two days, Tahrir has been empty of all but vendors and a few score revolutionary campers.
On the broad cement slab dividing July 26th Avenue in Zamalek, two dozen men, a woman in headscarf and her small children consume traditional Ramadan dishes donated by a charity while sitting at tables spread with red cloths. Ramadan is a time for generosity.
As night descends, lights blaze, traffic snarls, Cairenes crowd into sweet shops to buy large trays of honey soaked pastries. Delicate glass-panel lanterns are strung across narrow streets and from balconies, a tradition that goes back to al-Hakim, an eccentric 11th century ruler, and shops are festooned with blue and red flags and fairy lights.
On the broad, rippling Nile, men puff on water pipes and women in headscarves dance till the early morning hours to blaring music on rented pleasure boats arrayed in fantastic displays of flashing coloured lights.
Ramadan is a season of lights if not enlightenment. Although millions of Egyptians took part in the June 30th protests that brought down the Brotherhood and toppled Morsi, the movement refuses to accept defeat and its liberal and secular opponents remain as divided as ever – even on where to stage Ramadan breakfasts.
Asked about business, the florist on the corner near my hotel speaks for many small shop-owners when he replies, “Not too bad, but it will improve when the Brotherhood goes.” This is also the view of a waiter at the Chinese takeaway in the alley and a nearby news agent.
Poverty is never far away in this city of 20 million. Scruffy children with bare feet, women in black cloaks, and crippled men sitting on the pavement sell packets of tissues and chewing gum. A young man sifts through bags of rubbish outside a block of flats.
Lantern shops along July 26th have huge stocks and few buyers. The clerk in an upmarket grocery says five men from the Shubra quarter where he lives were killed in last Monday’s clash between Brotherhood supporters and the police and army.
“The men were given some money and food by the Brotherhood and told they would be safe,” he remarks.
Sitting in his prefabricated air-conditioned site office in the Dokki quarter, contractor Mamdouh Habashi complains that he cannot count on deliveries of materials he needs for the complex he is building. “We cannot calculate anything due to insecurity. The unseen factor is too high. Suppliers cannot deliver fuel or open offices because of the turbulent times.” Nevertheless, on the political plane, he is “very optimistic.”
British consultant Angus Blair says there is “a huge brain drain of upper class Muslims. Many are leaving for societal issues”, such as growing sexual harassment of women and terrible pollution of the environment.
Ilma, an artist, agrees but argues that even Egyptians who have departed for London and Paris “want to be in Egypt to build their businesses as well as the country. They will come back as soon as they can”.
A friend who went to the bank saw people “bringing back money they had withdrawn and put in drawers or under mattresses”, fearing a financial crash like the March melt-down in Cyprus. “When I asked for dollars, they said I could have any amount I want from my dollar account. The problem is a shortage of Egyptian pounds.”
A European diplomat long resident here remarks: “Every day we hope the situation will get better. Every day we wait to see if we have reached the beginning of the end of the crisis.”