Ramadan this year is bound to be different. In light of the political and social changes facing the Muslim-majority countries of the Arab Spring, this fast will mean so much more. Many greet the holy month with armed struggle against brutal regimes as in Syria, demonstrations in Sudan, or a continuous political crisis -- like Egypt and Iraq.
Each year, Muslims around the world come together to fast the month of Ramadan. From dawn until dusk food, drink and intimate relations are forbidden to the one who fasts. Physically taxing, the main aspiration is spiritual purification and to become closer to God. Spending more time reading the Koran and praying through the night achieve this. It is also a time of generosity in which one should donate meals and volunteer their time helping the needy. The spirit of the month is also in family gatherings around the dinner table each night for iftar, the meal breaking the fast at the end of each day. In essence, it is a time of reflection and celebration with those around you.
The countries of the Arab Spring are still undergoing major social, political, and economic changes that will undoubtedly affect this holy month. In Iraq, the electricity shortage continues in the face of temperatures above 120 degrees. That means a long day of fasting without fans or air conditioners to make up for the lack of hydration. Constant bombings and insecurity make it unsafe for families to move around to visit one another. The lack of political unity will mean an even longer wait for the basic services of water and electricity to reach Iraqi citizens.
In Sudan and Yemen, economic woes continue, and the majority cannot even afford to buy the essentials they need to prepare for the iftar meal. High inflation and political instability will make a difficult Ramadan that could possibly inspire more protests in these two countries. In Syria, the intensity of violence has escalated as the rebellion enters Damascus while others greet Ramadan in refugee camps along the Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders. For those who have fled the country, Ramadan will be spent away from their families and friends, worrying about their safety. Refugees living in camps have to deal with a fast in extreme heat without air conditioning or fans. And without real kitchens, the usually hearty meal will be difficult to prepare. But many are hoping for the impending success of the revolution as the events in Damascus continue to unfold.
But the Arab Spring has brought a new Ramadan to some. There is optimism in Tunisia as the democratic experiment develops. A freely elected assembly is drafting a new constitution and the coalition government is doing what it can to work with unions pressures. The hope is that this stability will continue so that Tunisia can serve as a model for democratic transition in the region. In neighboring Libya, the first parliamentary elections since Ghaddafi’s four-decade rule are the starting point for democratic transition.
In Egypt, where I have just returned from, Ramadan this year is being celebrated in the shadow of somber political and economic extremities. A new president has been elected in the first free elections in Egyptian history. But tensions remain high between President Morsi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces over dissolving parliament and redrafting the constitution. Police have yet to return to the streets to protect citizens from lawlessness. And the pressures of unemployment and inflation have made Egyptians depressed about the future of their country. Uncertainty is chilling and that has made the month of Ramadan more subdued this year.
This Ramadan tastes of the success of the Arab Spring and the battles yet to be won. As long as the economies of the region continue to suffer, people will pressure their governments for more equality and justice. Thus Ramadan is not only a time for self-improvement and purification, but also a reminder that the work of the Arab Spring is nowhere near complete. So as Muslims greet each other this month, may every year find you in good health and may it find these revolutions alive and well.