CAIRO – As the sun set on the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, families across Cairo gathered for the fast-breaking iftar meal in a country that in the last two weeks has seen protests by millions, a coup against an elected president and the deaths of dozens of people in clashes with the military.
Ramadan is traditionally a time of personal reflection and feeling a sense of brotherhood with fellow Muslims, but in the aftermath of the military overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi, the divisions among Egyptians extend even down to this traditional meal.
On one side of the city, Tahrir Square remains the symbolic center of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and later opposed Morsi. Across town in an eastern district, Morsi’s supporters have coalesced around a major intersection in front of the mosque of Rabaah al-Adawiya.
Breaking their fast outdoors, the people in the two camps expressed bafflement and disdain for the other side.
“I don’t know if the people at Rabaah al-Adawiya are out of their minds or if they are brainwashed,” said Shenouda William, a 35-year-old lawyer, who sat with about 100 people in the echoing emptiness of Tahrir Square to break their fast.
Others described the Morsi supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood as ignorant peasants or possibly Palestinian and Syrian refugees looking for food and a place to sleep.
A Christian, William chose to join the iftar as a symbol of national unity and described this as “the best Ramadan I’ve ever known because the Brotherhood are not here – they succeeded in dividing the people, and this will never happen again.”
Egyptians remain divided, however, and while the Brotherhood alienated much of the country in their year in power, they still have supporters who came by the tens of thousands to break their fast Wednesday night in a clear show of strength.
Families thronged into the boulevards near the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque and sat under tents or on long sheets of blue tarpaulins to first pray and then eat after the sun set.
Fireworks marked the end of the day and an imam recited the call to prayer as people tentatively took their first sips of water and ate dates handed out to the crowd.
Then came the communal prayer – an awesome sight as thousands stretching into the distance silently rose and fell in the ritual prostration before reciting “Amen” in a single voice.
“We do our prayers to bring victory, especially this month with these developments. We hope he will grant us this,” said Mohammed El-Sayyed, a college student from Mansoura after the prayers and before he joined his family for the meal. “There might be problems and people might die, but resolution will come this month.”
The first iftar of Ramadan is traditionally spent with family, so El-Sayyed talked his father into bringing the whole clan down to the mosque rally — a move clearly followed by thousands of others as families picnicked around them.
Across town in Tahrir Square, construction worker and youth organizer Ahmed Abdel Aziz sees a kind of family in the more modest gathering of people who ate chicken and rice under the hulking Mugamma building, Cairo’s bureaucratic heart.
“After all the events of the last days, it is great to celebrate the first day of Ramadan in Tahrir. Here, it is better than being at home. I feel like I am with my family here,” Aziz said, drawing with relief on his first cigarette of the day.
Tamarod, the youth-driven campaign that is credited with spearheading the movement to oust Morsi, will hold its own iftar in Tahrir Square on Friday, doubtlessly drawing huge numbers of people. But the anti-Morsi crowd’s numbers are also small because they see themselves as victorious and have less need to show their strength in the streets.
The Wednesday night meal in Tahrir came courtesy of well-known Egyptian director Khaled Youssef, who stopped by to see how things were going.
“Ramadan has always been a time of union and reunion, but this time we have a lost group, a group that doesn’t acknowledge the will of the people,” he said, referring to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Back at Rabaah Al-Adawiya, where many in the crowd also were eating roast chicken and rice, most refused to believe that most of the country supported the military coup. People suggested that those in Tahrir had been paid off or had been fooled, convinced that the true Egyptians were sitting around them.
“In Tahrir Square now, it is just those from the previous regime, the businessmen, and the military,” said Ali Awad, an elderly, bespectacled teacher trainer from the northern town of Zagazig. “Those who want things to be right want Morsi.”
But while the crowd outside the mosque certainly represents a large section of the country, it can’t be described as inclusive. All the women without exception wore conservative dress, and sharing space with the portraits of Morsi was a huge picture of ultraconservative icon Omar Abdel-Rahman — the blind sheik imprisoned in the U.S. for masterminding the attacks on New York landmarks in the 1990s.
At the end of the prayer, several young men chanted “Egypt, an Islamic state!” and “By our blood and souls, we will sacrifice ourselves for Islam!” — the kind of rhetoric that has made many Egyptians uneasy with the Brotherhood and its fellow travelers from the ultraconservative Salafi movement.
Amid the prayer, the food and the camaraderie of the evening outside the mosque, there was also a deep sense of unease at the future.
The government had ordered the arrest of the Brotherhood’s top leadership, most of whom are believed to be hidden among the thousands at the sit-in, and many in the crowd talked about how they had helped those who were wounded Monday in clashes with the military. That violence had left at least 51 Brotherhood supporters dead and hundreds wounded.
Sayyed Ezz, a math teacher from Alexandria, was handing out cups of chilled water to people with his wife. He described how during the trip to Cairo, police stopped his microbus and searched all the passengers – saying it was like the dark days of the Brotherhood’s repression in the 1950s at the hands of Egypt’s first president.
“They are going to kill us. It’s starting,” he said, “It is like the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, and they are going to do it again.”