Blood, fear cast pall over Ramadan

Egypt's political crisis shows no sign of abating as the military-backed authorities move against defiant Islamist supporters of the deposed president, Mohamed Morsi, and wrangling continues over a new government, casting a dark cloud over the start of the Ramadan holiday.

Public prosecutors ordered the arrest of Mohammed Badie, the supreme guide of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, over accusations of inciting violence on Monday outside a Republican Guard headquarters, where 51 people were killed in the country's worst single incident in more than a year.

Half a dozen other leaders of the Brotherhood and of the more radical Gamaa Islamiya were also summoned for questioning, reinforcing claims of a security crackdown.

Islamists and human rights watchdogs in Egypt and abroad have condemned Monday's killings as a massacre.

Cairenes said that the grim political climate, economic pressures and the bloodshed were spoiling the mood as the Muslim month of dawn-to-dusk fasting and penitence – normally an occasion for celebration – got under way. Events in Syria are another gloomy reminder of misery and bloodshed elsewhere in the region.

News of $4-billion cash aid from Kuwait after Tuesday's announcement of $8-billion in grants and loans from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates reflected the relief of the conservative Gulf monarchies at the Egyptian army's move against the Brotherhood. But the mood on the streets was downcast.

Mismanaging the economy
Shopping in the Bab al-Luq market, Nasser Hamdi, a state insurance employee, said he was still waiting to be paid his Ramadan bonus to buy provisions for his family, and blamed the Brotherhood for mismanaging the economy.

"They were given Egypt on a golden platter, but they didn't know how to take care of it," he said.

Mohsen Amin, sweeping the floor around his little fruit and vegetable stand, said business was slow.

"Normally there would be a more celebratory atmosphere for the holiday, but the economy is collapsing," he said. "Things have got much worse since 2011. And now people are afraid of each other because they don't know who supports whom."

Nagwa Ebeid, a Christian engineer and mother of two, reported that her Muslim neighbours were not preparing their usual special recipes to break the fast this year.

"It is not happy time," she said. "You can see that there aren't many lanterns and decorations in the streets. We are sad about all the people who are dying and [who] can't see right from wrong. Prices have gone up a lot in the last year and many people can't afford meat at all."

Slogan-scarred walls
In the centre of the city, the mood is calm – though that still means a hooting chorus of rickety taxis and slogan-scarred walls that tell the story of the past two and a half extraordinary years, with their successive demands for the removal of Hosni Mubarak, the army and finally the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet mass protests continue at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, near Monday's scenes of carnage at the Republican Guard barracks. And everywhere there are reminders that things can change frighteningly quickly. Lines of sand-coloured armoured personnel carriers are parked next to the Egyptian Museum, off Tahrir Square.

On Tuesday night, as last-minute Ramadan shoppers thronged the streets, troops were stopping and searching cars on the road to Muqattam, where the Brotherhood's imposing new headquarters was burned and looted last week. Policemen who disappeared in Morsi's final days are back at work.

Emerging from noon prayers in the downtown Abu Bakr al-Sadiq mosque, Khaled Mahmoud was in reflective mood. Like other local businesses, his paint shop is losing money, and there is only enough spare cash for a few streamers and fairy lights.

"I like the Muslim Brotherhood, but not their political methods," Mahmoud said.

Struggling Egyptian economy
But the army, he felt, had made a mistake in stepping in. "It would have been better if Morsi had been allowed to stay in power for his four years, even if he did make mistakes."

Mohamed Abel-Sadiq, a driver, was delighted with this week's massive injection of funds from the Gulf, a badly needed boost for the struggling Egyptian economy.

"That shows their support for the revolution," he said, "not for the Muslim Brotherhood, who took over power and tried to keep it for themselves."

But Egypt's divisions are profound and impossible to avoid.

Mohammed Abdel-Fatah, a Brotherhood activist who has been organising pro-Morsi rallies at Cairo University, where some protesters have reportedly threatened suicide unless the former president is freed from house arrest, said: "Thank God for Ramadan. It's when the victories of Islam usually come.

"But the problem is not with Morsi as an individual: it is a war against religion. I have heard that Egyptians welcomed Ramadan in Tahrir Square with discos and dancing. These are not the morals of Egyptians. The main purpose is to eliminate Islam from this country. It is hard to feel the joy of Ramadan. But we ask God to accept the victims [of the shootings] as martyrs." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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Ian Black
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