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World

Egypt celebrates first Ramadan under Muslim Brotherhood

Ramadan is a time of reflection for Muslims across the globe. In Egypt, this is the first Ramadan under the Muslim Brotherhood - and many perceive the celebrations as being different.

It is dusk in Cairo, and in the working class district of Moqattam a long table is wedged between two shopfronts. About 30 Egyptian men are gathered around. Some hold prayer beads, others sit with their heads resting on the tabletop.

The men are here for Iftar, the traditional meal that breaks the daytime fast for those observing Ramadan, when bars close, shops limit their trading hours and the pious abstain from food and drink from dawn until dusk.

It can be an expensive time of year for the more than 16 million Egyptians who live below the poverty line. Prices for groceries go up, businesses limit their hours, and local mosques encourage donations.

'Good, religious men'

president morsi

The first civilian president in Egypt's history

But the meal on the Moqattam roadside comes at no charge: the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leading member Mohammed Morsi was elected president in June, is footing the bill. Egypt's largest religious organization has been giving away take-out Iftar meals most of the afternoon from their nearby headquarters.

Ahmed Mahmoud Ali is a store clerk, married with four children. He moved from a rural village to Cairo for its better job prospects. As Ahmed breaks his fast, he explains why he supports the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party: "I know them, they have helped my community and they are good religious men."

Egyptians like Ahmed are the core constituents of the Brotherhood's base. While other political factions struggled to organize following the ouster of former strongman Hosni Mubarak early last year, the Brotherhood tapped into an already established grassroots network spanning the length and breadth of Egypt.

In the first round of parliamentary elections in November they won 47 percent of the vote. In June, longtime Muslim Brotherhood politician Morsi won the presidency in the country's first fair presidential elections. The Brotherhood has emerged as the only real rival to the ruling military council, which continues to hold the bulk of executive powers.

Formed in 1923, outlawed in 1957, and then slowly allowed back into public life during Mubarak's later years, the Brotherhood has a long tradition of charity and community outreach, particularly among the rural poor. They understand the people, Ahmed says.

New stature

Perched in the hills above Cairo, the famed Citadel offers a stunning view of the sprawling capital and is an apt metaphor for just how high the Brotherhood have risen. Here, the Brotherhood has organized a very different kind of Iftar. This is the Brotherhood's slick, educated, wealthy machine: Guests are greeted by a man in a suit with a Blackberry and seated at tables with flowing white tablecloths. The prayer call from the imposing Mohammed Ali mosque fights for attention with the babble of well-to-do attendees.

Egyptians crowd at Al-Hussein historical site under decoration

Many Egyptians feel Ramadan is different this year

However, not everyone is as excited about the new stature of the Muslim group.

Marlaine Morees, one of Egypt's 10 million Coptic Christians, feels Ramadan is a time to reflect on the changes in her community and country.

Seated in a western-style café at "City Stars," a massive modern mall in the upper-class Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, Morees, who works at a multinational bank, says Christians and Muslims used to celebrate Ramadan together as more of a cultural event. There was more harmony then, she says.

"This feels like there is more tension or struggle," she says. "The cause is not so clear - whether it's tension because of the pressure we have right now, the sort of environment of the Muslim Brotherhood being around."

'We don't serve alcohol'

There is no question that Ramadan is different this year, Morees says.

As an example she points to the upscale Gouna resort on the Red Sea, which has catered to foreigners - and served alcohol to them - for decades.

"Just recently, we were there and my dad asked if they have beverages like beer. They said we don't serve anymore," she says. None of the other bars and cafes in town did either. "I know alcohol isn't an important issue, but it gives a bit of an indicator that we are heading towards conservatism."

Despite President Morsi's repeated assurances that the Coptic minority will always have a place in Egypt, Morees and many of her friends are pondering their future in Egypt, especially after recent clashes between Muslims and Christians in the city of Dahshur.

Children participate in evening prayers at a mosque in Cairo

Children participate in evening prayers at a Cairo mosque

"I know a lot of Christians who have considered leaving the country," she says. She and her father have discussed obtaining a second passport, because they no longer feel safe. "We feel that at any moment, things could turn, and there could be more and more violence between Christians and Muslims."

At the moment it's hard to say what to expect from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. The party's platform does not address specific political and economic problems, Cairo University political scientist Mostafa Elwi Saif says.
may have a platform,

Elwi Saif is optimistic the Brotherhood will be judged on their performance in government and their ability to implement actual policies, rather than their popularity amongst the community.

"There is a big difference between being in opposition and being in power - because being in power, you are responsible," he says.

At the end of the day, Marlaine Morees shares the professor's hopes: "I am Egyptian. Muslims and Christians - we're under the same roof, and we all care about one country."

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