Around August 1, the uprisings in the Middle East will confront an entirely new obstacle: the fasting month of Ramadan, when many Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise until sunset. What will the holy month mean for the civil war in Libya, the struggle between security forces and protesters in Syria, the political stalemate in Yemen, and the persistent calls for reform in Egypt?
Earlier this month, NATO said it would consider not bombing Libya during Ramadan if Muammar Qaddafi's forces also honored a ceasefire, perhaps in part, the AP speculated, because the alliance worried that bombing Tripoli during the month of peace, prayer, and reflection could "provoke a backlash in the Islamic world." France's foreign minister, however, later indicated that NATO's campaign would continue in August after representatives of Muslim countries told him that "there is no contradiction between the religious rules during the Ramadan period and the continuation of our military intervention."
Now, as AFP notes today, the Libyan rebels are asking France for arms to help them storm Tripoli within "days" as they ratchet up a "pre-Ramadan offensive" on all fronts. "During Ramadan, the endurance of even the hardiest volunteers will be tested by desert battle without food and water," AFP writes, especially as temperatures soar. Still, it's not clear how many fighters will actually fast. Last week, a rebel commander explained, in the words of The Washington Post, that "Islam permits fighters to forgo fasting during Ramadan in times of war." One rebel commander tells AFP that "if there is fighting during Ramadan, we will fight as usual. We will not stop until we have liberated Libya." A young rebel righter adds, "Ramadan is a good time to be a martyr."
Not everyone is as optimistic as these fighters, however. The Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders writes that Ramadan "has become a perilous black hole threatening to undermine" NATO's Libya campaign. Saunders says the Ramadan dilemma is dominating conversations at NATO headquarters in Brussels and rebel headquarters in Benghazi. "With soldiers fasting all day [the rebels] will not be in a position to make major advances," he writes, and "a month-long pause or severe slowdown could push an already tenuous campaign into outright failure or retreat, requiring many months more combat in order to return to current positions." And as the rebels face food, fuel, and cash shortages, he adds, "there is the risk that a fasting, expectant public will abandon a rebel government whose promises of a better life fuelled by democracy and petroleum sales may begin to look hollow."
Back in Tripoli, the state news agency JANA reported that government officials met today to guarantee that food supplies such as barley, wheat, and bananas "reach consumers as soon as possible before the start of Ramadan."
In Syria, the prevailing analysis suggests Ramadan could favor the protesters. Or, as Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell tweeted today, "The consensus seems to be that Ramadan (more people in mosques=demos) is bad news for Bashar." Patrick Seale at Gulf News elaborates:
When the daytime fast is ended at sunset, the tradition is for the rich to feed the poor, often at trestle tables in the courtyards of mosques--or so it was before mosques became centres of protest. If large crowds gather next month for occasions of this sort, there could be serious trouble.
But Kal at the blog The Moor Next Door thinks Ramadan could be a mixed bag for Syrian protesters. Sectarian tensions could be inflamed by Islamist groups exploiting the holiday for political ends or Alawite-dominated security forces continuing their crackdown on Sunni protesters, he notes, adding that "regimes will be presented with extreme risk when confronting their enemies in mosques or communal festivals." Still, he doesn't rule out the possibility that governments in the Middle East could reach truces with opposition movements during Ramadan. "Arab regimes regularly offer pardons or commute sentences for prisoners (both ordinary and political) during Ramadan," he points out.
Ahmad Saif, the director of a Sanaa-based think tank, tells The Media Line that he expects demonstrations against Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh to increase during Ramadan even though they've recently lost momentum as Saleh recovers from surgery in Saudi Arabia. "The demonstrations won't occur because of religious sentiment, but simply because people will meet each other on the street," he predicts. But Kal at The Moor Next Door warns that Islamist groups may also grow emboldened in Yemen and the Twitter account Yemen Updates points out another problem: ahead of the holy month, supplies in the country are dwindling and prices are rising. In this AP shot from Yemen, Yemeni people demonstrate against the continued presence of anti-government protesters in the capital, Sanaa. One banner reads, "Ramadan is arriving, the tent siege is still on."
Earlier this week, Al Masry Al Youm reported that protesters in Tahrir Square will continue their sit-in during Ramadan. "We will take into account road congestion before breakfast when everyone is keen to return home on time, for fear that thugs will take advantage of the opportunity to spread chaos," one organizer explained. Egyptian Twitter user Cheraz Eldin says Egyptians "are divided of how they view Ramadan's impact on protests. Some view it an obstacle. Others see it as 'everyday is a Friday.'" In this post's lead photo, an Egyptian protester decorates his tent with a traditional Ramadan lantern. This AP photo shows more decorations in Tahrir Square.