They called it Egypt’s largest-ever Iftar table.
Tens of thousands of supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi sat on a patchwork of blue tarps and carpets Wednesday evening, stretching block after block for nearly half a mile on the streets of Cairo’s Rabaa district.
After they fasted throughout the day in a sweltering tent encampment, anticipation built as dusk approached on Egypt’s first day of Ramadan and crowds prepared to share Iftar, the traditional evening meal when Muslims break their daily fast.
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Colorful streamers were hastily draped from tent to tent. Trucks distributed free food, including bags filled with cumin-spiced meat, dates, rice, tomatoes and beans for the moment when the fast was declared over.
A burst of fireworks signaled the time for prayer, and for a moment people in the crowd — who have been holding boisterous protests for more than a week to demand Morsi’s reinstatement — were lost in religious meditation.
But within seconds after the prayer concluded, the chanting resumed. “Morsi! Morsi! We give the power to God,” they shouted, lifting pictures of the detained president.
Only then did most families sit down to eat.
Egypt entered its annual Ramadan season Wednesday with an overwhelming sense of national disunity. But if some were expecting that the monthlong period of fasting and reflection would provide some breathing space, Wednesday’s mass Iftar meal in Rabaa suggested that divisions might only heighten during the holiday.
Many, including the military that toppled Morsi last week, would like to see Ramadan sap the momentum from his Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who might find it hard to sustain protests while refraining from food and water from dawn to dusk. In most Muslim countries, daily life slows noticeably during Ramadan as people prefer to sleep during the day and spend the nights with family members and friends.
And with the political turmoil, many Egyptians say they’re not feeling particularly in a holiday mood this year. But if anything, the holiday so far seems to be energizing Morsi’s supporters, who vow to keep their sit-in alive even as they fast in temperatures that are expected to hit 100 degrees in the coming days.
“This feels like a holy pilgrimage” said Eneyat El Shenway, 38, a teacher and mother of five from the city of Mansoura.
Muslim Brotherhood officials said they were doing their best to create a holiday spirit in the encampment, decorating tents, laying carpets on the asphalt and planning nighttime soccer matches.
“If anything, Ramadan is going to give strength to our cause,” said Muslim Brotherhood cleric Gamal Abdel Sattar, a religious scholar at Al Azhar University.
Still because Ramadan is seen as a time of brotherhood, charity and equality, ardent Muslims might find it difficult to reconcile the holiday with anti-military protests or calls for vengeance. Harming or killing other Muslims is especially taboo.
By the same token, the military might find itself more restrained during the holiday. Launching a crackdown against the protesters, such as the one Monday that killed at least 51 people, could trigger a public backlash.
During Ramadan, it’s not uncommon for violence and crime to drop, partly because people are physically weaker and more focused on religion.
Other research, however, suggests that fasting and giving up vices such as cigarettes can make people more irritable and intolerant.
Most Muslim Brotherhood leaders have publicly called upon supporters to remain peaceful. But signs of militancy are evident in Rabaa. The neighborhood has been barricaded with brick walls where volunteer security guards stand at every entrance.
Outside the camp, the growing polarization has put a damper on Egypt’s usual vibrant Ramadan celebrations.
Raed Mohamed, manager of El Basha supermarket, near the Rabaa sit-in, complained that his store is usually packed during the last 10 days before Ramadan. This year customers stayed away.
“It just doesn’t feel like Ramadan this year,” he said.