The relentless cycle of protest and crackdown in Syria over the last four months appears poised to enter a new phase in the coming Muslim holy month of Ramadan, with activists planning to capitalize on religious rhythms to hold nightly demonstrations despite fears of an even harsher government reaction.
The protesters say it should be easier to gather people since they would ordinarily end their days of fasting and nights of feasting with a visit to mosques for prayers. Their hope is that mobilizing people every day, rather than waiting for large Friday protests, will wear down a government that has so far been able to hang on to support among substantial sectors of the population despite protests that have grown larger and more widespread.The anticipation of a change in tactic is high enough, and the fear palpable enough, that rumors of the government’s plans abound: most notably that authorities plan to begin a major renovation program at mosques, effectively closing many of them during the holy month, which starts next week.
“People are talking about a very different Ramadan this year,” said Um Janti, a homemaker from Homs, a city with a combustible sectarian mix that has emerged as a flashpoint. “People are saying they will pray on the streets, if mosques get closed. They believe that the reward for dying in Ramadan is far greater.”
Both sides in Syria’s uprising, which erupted in mid-March in the poor southern town of Dara’a, have struggled for momentum. Government officials have regularly said they have the upper hand, even as they failed to quell protests with a fierce crackdown that human rights activists say has killed at least 1,600 civilians. Protesters have also overestimated their abilities, repeatedly speaking of bringing the government down in weeks despite continued backing for President Bashar al-Assad from minorities and the business elite in Damascus, the capital, and in Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.
Protest leaders are especially hopeful about their new plan because mosques have played an essential role in the uprising against Mr. Assad, who has ruled since he inherited power from his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000. In a country with a severely restricted civic life, mosques were used to mobilize crowds and served as meeting points for antigovernment protesters, including non-Muslims. Some were also converted to makeshift field hospitals and safe havens for those who were wanted by authorities for organizing and participating in demonstrations.
In April, a month into the revolt, mosques took on an especially important significance after Syrian forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, seized Al-Omari mosque, which was a center of protests in Dara’a. For many Syrians, the attack on a holy place was more proof of the brutality of a government that was not going to give up easily.
The refrain heard these days is that the month will be “sukhn,” or hot, a word protesters often use to describe the towns and cities roiled most by demonstrations.
Activists, who have posted video on YouTube instructing protesters on the plan, said they expect demonstrations to begin around 10:30 p.m., just after people gather for the tarawih, the prayer performed only in Ramadan. Although nightly protests are now held in many cities, including on the outskirts of Damascus, they are relatively small and last no longer than 45 minutes; organizers hope the Ramadan protests will last for two to three hours.
“Ramadan usually brings families together; this year it will bring Syria together,” said Um Yasmin, a Syrian mother of two who lives in Saudi Arabia but stays in touch with activists. “We will all rally behind one goal, and we will get to it by the grace of God.”
The protesters are sure to face significant hurdles, especially since they have widely telegraphed their plan.
In the past two weeks, the government has stepped up arrests in a move that activists believe was meant to slow the pace of protests during Ramadan.
For a time, activists thought they were also facing a religious edict that would have subverted their plans. Rumor had it that Syria’s leading religious scholar, Mohamad Sa'id Ramadan Al-Bouti, had ruled that reciting the tarawih prayer could be performed at home because of the hot weather. But the Awqaf ministry, which is in charge of religious matters, denied the report on Thursday. So did Mr. Bouti.
“The mosques during the holy month of Ramadan will be a place to read the Quran, and remember God and pray for security, safety and peace,” said Mohamad Abdel Sattar, who heads the ministry.