08/01/2011 08:37 EDT | Updated 10/01/2011 05:12 EDT

Ramadan In The Arab World: Unrest, Government Crackdowns, Rising Food Prices Cast Pall On Holy Month

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CAIRO - From Syria to Libya and Egypt, the uprisings and unrest gripping the Arab world have cast a pall on the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when the traditional focus on piety will likely be eclipsed by more unrest.

Food prices -- part of the economic hardships that catalyzed the ouster of the Egyptian and Tunisian leaders -- are still climbing. And protesters have shown little patience for conciliatory gestures by governments after decades of empty promises.

With momentum strong to drive out authoritarian regimes, there is no sign that opposition forces will ease up on protests -- even with the difficulties of the month of dawn-to-dusk fasting that begins Monday.

Predictions of a tense Ramadan have already started to be realized.

Libyan rebels are turning their weapons on each other, dimming hopes for the overthrow of longtime leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Syrian security forces escalated their crackdown on protesters the day before Ramadan on Sunday, killing more than 70 people. And the violence in Syria is only expected to intensify throughout the holy month.

In Egypt, Cairo's Tahrir Square is once again a tent encampment and the joyous celebrations that accompanied Hosni Mubarak's fall on Feb. 11 have given way to anger and impatience over the slow pace of change.

In response to the pressure from a new round of protests, the judiciary is promising to put Mubarak, his security chief and his two sons on trial this week for a range of charges from corruption to ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising. The hearings are to be carried live on state television, broadcasts that could easily outshine the Ramadan television serials that Egyptians love to watch during the month.

Ramadan falls this year during the scorching summer, when tempers already running hot could easily boil over, especially as Egyptians complain about the continued rise in food prices and the general economic malaise after the uprising. Food prices typically spike during Ramadan, and the extravagant dinners many put on to break the daily fast drive a deep hole in household budgets.

"Before the revolution, Egyptians were like kindling waiting for a match," said Mahmoud El-Askalany with the consumer group Citizens Against the High Cost of Living. He was talking about the sense of frustration over soaring prices of food and consumer goods, as well as the gross income inequality and nepotism that prevailed before the Arab uprisings.

"If anyone thinks that this has changed, they'd be wrong," El-Askalany said. "The same rage we saw then can surface again, and worse."

Still, Egyptians have not lost their sense of humour. In the annual tradition of naming dates after celebrities, they have dubbed the cheapest, least desirable variety of the fruit "Hosni Mubarak" this year.

"They're the lousiest of them all," said date vendor Sherif Ramadan, flicking one of the shriveled brown pellets back into a burlap sack with the others. Even though they sell for 40 cents per kilogram (2.2 pounds), and dates are a traditional food for Ramadan, "there's no demand for them," he says.

In Syria, protests and the government's violent crackdown on them are expected to escalate during the month ahead, deepening a spiral of violence that has already killed at least 1,600 people since the uprising began in mid-March.

Libya's civil war remains mired in a stalemate, and across the oil-rich OPEC member, the fighting has battered what was once an economy on the cusp of sharp growth.

While Libyans in government-held Tripoli grapple with dayslong gasoline lines and food and cash shortages, rebels in the east have clashed with a rogue faction while battling forces loyal to Gadhafi. In addition, one of the rebels' chief commanders was killed in yet unexplained circumstances after the rebels themselves arrested him.

In much of the Arab world, protesters hope the pressure Ramadan places on food prices will inspire more people to challenge their leaders. Jordanian activists, for instance, say Ramadan inflation could fuel their campaign aimed at wresting greater reforms from King Abdullah II.

Several Arab governments, meanwhile, are trying to ease economic hardship.

In Bahrain, a tiny island nation off Saudi Arabia's coast where the ruling Sunni minority has been trying to quash an uprising by the majority Shiites, the king ordered increases in the salaries of civil servants, members of the military and retired government employees.

In nearby Qatar, authorities have ordered reduced prices on 267 types of food and other commodities -- 100 items more than last year's Ramadan season list of price caps, according to The Peninsula daily.

Such efforts are expensive in nations such as Egypt where the economy has already been hard hit by the unrest.

Food inflation in Egypt stood at 19 per cent in June versus a year earlier, double the core inflation rate and slightly higher than pre-revolutionary levels. To offset the blow, the Cabinet announced last week that the government would shoulder 50 per cent of the cost of food rations, which tens of millions of Egyptians can buy.

For Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, Ramadan is another month of hardship. The Palestinian Authority, reeling from a debt crisis, is paying tens of thousands of people only about half their normal salaries.

"Every year people wait for Ramadan for blessings," said Ayman Al-Hosari, a 47-year-old school teacher in Gaza who has nine children. "But it just gets worse every year."

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