Ramadan begins on 1 August and will last through 29 August. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan will coincide with a variety of ongoing uprisings in the Arab world. It is worth considering how this might be significant in political terms since it seems to so obvious that this Ramadan is likely to be especially eventful. The Islamic holiday’s overlap with several ongoing and developing uprisings in the Arab countries is highly likely to increase openings for popular activism, especially by sectarian and Islamist factions. Additionally, Ramadan will provide opposition elements with greater opportunities for organizing and protest as large numbers of people gather at mosques and communal festivities in the open air in major cities. In counties with ongoing uprisings, such as Yemen and Syria, there is a high probability that Islamist groupings will become bolder and more confident during Ramadan, taking advantage of opportunities to use religious festivals and sermons to rally their followers against their regime and factional enemies. At the least, Ramadan could intensify already common post-Friday afternoon prayers demonstrations and nighttime protests that have become more and more common in several Arab countries.
Islamist factions have used Ramadan to mobilize political support and activism in various Arab countries in the past; militant groups have tended to seize on Ramadan for offensives and propaganda during times of armed conflict (e.g., Algeria, Iraq, Somalia, etc.). While the Arab uprisings have tended not to be religious in nature Islamist activists have participated to some extent in virtually all of them, in some cases making up a large contingent of demonstrators and in Tunisia and Egypt their organizations have been politically hugely significant in transitional politics. In countries where Islamists have been significant but not driving politics or uprisings, they may attempt to use the month of Ramadan as a means of increasing their visibility, clout and leverage among opposition coalitions and in general. It is important to note that several national holidays and significant anniversaries have come and gone largely without particular incident since the Arab uprisings began. At the same time, in Tunisia especially, confrontations (including fistfights and disruptions of rallies; see another upcoming post on these complaints) between Islamists (supporters of an-Nahdha and Salafis) and secular and leftist parties have increased in recent weeks and months as suspicion of the especially popular religious parties grows. Left wing parties continue to complain about an-Nahdha and other religious factions using mosques as political soapboxes and dividing out religious from political issues. Ramadan may prove to be important as Arab polities become more polarized in the midst of and in the wake of uprisings.
There are also reasons that in some countries Ramadan might be less significant that the analysis here expects: in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and elsewhere there are political dynamics that have led Islamist movements to attempt to water down and compromise on how “aggressive” they allow themselves to appear in relation to non-Islamist parties. For strategic reasons, some parties have taken more “cautious” approaches to activism (recall the Muslim Brothers’ late entry into the Egyptian uprising and the similarly slow entry of the Mauritanian Islamists into youth protests) in hopes of avoiding blame for regime crackdowns and building good faith with other parties. In Syria, sectarian concerns have led the opposition to studiously make public gestures that reject and downplay religious particularism. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that such tendencies could carry on this Ramadan. Still, the tactical benefits of exploiting the holiday for political ends may well be too great to resist for Islamist and non-Islamist elements alike. One might even envision that regimes and oppositions could come to truces a various stages this month: Arab regimes regularly offer pardons or commute sentences for prisoners (both ordinary and political) during Ramadan. And one should not expect for Islamists to be the only political set that attempts to capitalize on the holy month given the large number of practicing Muslims who are not Islamists and who belong other political tendencies.
Authorities will find it increasingly difficult to deal with protests without having repression associated with anti-religious tendencies. In Syria in particular increased repression during Ramadan will increasingly nag on sectarian grievances. Because the shabiha (pro-regime bands of thugs used to intimidate oppositionists and protesters) and other instruments of regime power are so heavily (though obviously not exclusively) Alawite in composition, combined with strongly anti-Alawite sentiments among many demonstrators, their continued brutality will feed into a sectarian narrative that presents the regime’s crackdown as an instance of Alawites killing Sunnis. Regimes will be presented with extreme risk when confronting their enemies in mosques or communal festivals. The secular, Ba’thist regime whose core leadership is heavily Alawite (again, with large participation from wealthy and prominent Sunnis and Christians) banning or killing Syrian Sunni Muslims in the tens or hundreds will only intensify resistance when it takes place during Ramadan. Violence against regime supporters is likely to increase; reports of pro-government citizens being kidnapped and dismembered near Homs (reports of similarly disfigured bodies of child protesters surfaced months ago) show increasingly reciprocal violence speak that recalls 1990s Algeria. The stakes of the struggle in Syria will only increase during Ramadan. Defections may become more frequent among the military rank and file in Syria and Libya. Narratives accousing religious extremists of running or coopting popular protest movements — which have already become increasingly discredited – will come under more aggeressive scruity, particulary if ordinary, fasting Muslims unassociated with such political tendencies are continuously harmed by government forces.
In the Arab countries with significant protest movements Ramadan will provide the authorities and their opponents with opportunities. Although citizens are likely to circulate among one another during evening festivals and at mosques giving oppositions greater access to potential sympathizers and platforms for protest, in countries where uprisings have yet to be successful, regimes are likely to increase countermeasures considerably, especially in countries with robust security services like Morocco and Jordan. Where regimes still have the support of the religious establishment this will combine with the intelligence and police forces to tighten their hold on power. Practically all Arab regimes are likely to attempt to promote members of the leadership class as exemplars of normal Ramadan observance; leaadership will make a point of promoting the heavily consumerist tendency which has been particularly common in the region in the last thirty years and presenting regime leaders as pious men fasting and following religious rituals. Official imams and other religious leaders will be employed toward discouraging protests and deviation from the official line.