Determined by the lunar Islamic calendar, the holy month of Ramadan will commence for most Muslim-majority countries on the evening of April 24 and will last for 29 or 30 days, based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon. For the overwhelming majority of Muslims, Ramadan is a time of atonement, self-discipline, charity work and devotion to God. Conjointly, many Muslims devote an hour or two to reading the Quran so that by the end of Ramadan the text has been read in its entirety. A special evening prayer, taraweeh, is also carried out daily throughout the holy month. During this time, Muslims from around the world fast from sunrise to sunset and engage in increased religious observance. This year, however, the holy month will be observed under unprecedented circumstances that affect Muslim observers across the globe due to the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fasting, one of the five pillars of Islam includes abstaining from eating, drinking, sensual and sexual acts and negative and sinful habits. The holy practice of spiritual fasting is an obligation to all adult Muslims, with exception to athletes and travellers, or those who suffer from an illness, the elderly, the diabetic, the chronically ill, in addition to women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or menstruating.
A BACKGROUND ON THE COVID-19 OUBREAK IN EGYPT
Egypt recorded its first COVID-19 case on February 14, and authorities have since adopted a series of measures restricting movement and business operations. Since mid-March the country is essentially on lockdown; international flights have been suspended, schools have closed, courts have stopped examining cases, while governorates have proceeded with implementing their own measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, including the closure of markets and sport centres, as well as putting a halt on domestic tourism.
Effective March 25, restrictions in place were extended for two more weeks and new ones were introduced, including a night curfew and suspension of public transport between 7:00 PM to 6:00 AM, shops closure between 5:00 PM to 6:00 AM, complete closure of cafes, amusement parks and dine-in restaurants, as well as limitation of non-essential movement between governorates. Museums, tourist sites, hotels and beaches have also been closed since.
On April 8, Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly extended all measures already in place for another two weeks to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country. The curfew was extended from 8:00 PM until 06:00 AM with the aim to ease traffic congestion. The measures were set to expire on April 23. On April 22, President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi urged Egyptians to exercise social distancing and healthy practices rules to ensure the public’s health, adding that otherwise the government will be required to impose stricter measures to contain the virus.
On the day the measures were set to expire, Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly announced a new series of measures during Ramadan, indicating a slight relaxation of the restrictions. Effective April 24, curfew will start an hour later, from 09:00 PM to 06:00 AM, commercial centres (shops, markets and shopping malls) can operate seven days a week until 05:00 PM and restaurants can only provide delivery services. Starting next week, some public services (real estate registration, court cases, licensing departments) will be partially operational.
As of April 22, Egypt counts 3,659 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 276 deaths.
RAMADAN IN EGYPT AMID A PANDEMIC
The Dar Al-Ifta, an Islamic educational institute, announced that Ramadan in Egypt will commence on April 24.
On March 15, the Council of Senior Scholars at Al-Azhar, Egypt’s renowned Sunni Islamic institution, issued a fatwa permitting, in accordance with Sharia Law, the suspension of mass prayers, including Friday prayers. The fatwa essentially encourages the authorities to regulate mass prayers as they see fit to stem the spread of the virus.
On March 29, the Ministry of Endowment extended the closure of mosques and Islamic places of worships indefinitely.
In early April, the Ministry of Religious Endowments issued a statement prohibiting the tradition of “mercy tables” during Ramadan. Instead, the ministry encouraged that citizens and organisations distribute food packages or donations to the poor. Mercy tables are traditionally organised by families to feed the poor and vulnerable during Ramadan.
On April 7, the ministry issued another statement clarifying that all gatherings and social activities during Ramadan are banned, as well as Itikaf [a period of retreat in a mosque] in the last ten days of the holy month.
Mid-April, the Ministry of Endowment said mosques will reopen when the virus is contained and there are no new cases, leaving no indication of a relaxation of the measures during Ramadan.
SECURITY SITUATION IN EGYPT
For Islamist extremists, Ramadan’s holiness reflects the ‘exceptional’ rewards they could receive by carrying out what they perceive as ‘acts of obedience,’ and thus, dying as ‘martyrs’ in such a blessed period. With that said, militant Islamists, including the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – known for their violent campaigns and promotion of its radical ideology – attempt to intensify attacks during Ramadan.
Despite more than two years since the launch of Comprehensive Operation Sinai – a military and security operation aimed at eliminating active militant groups and narcotics and arms smuggling and human trafficking networks – the threat of attacks targeting civilians and security forces persists.
On April 14, security forces launched a raid in an apartment in Al-Amiriya, where alleged militants were reportedly hiding out. The raid erupted into a firefight between the armed assailants and security forces.
In the shootout that lasted for about four hours, seven alleged militants and one police officer were killed and three others were injured. Six automatic rifles and four cartridges were seized. In a statement, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated that police had intelligence that supposed militants were plotting attacks on Coptic Cristian worshippers during Easter. The MoI issued another statement later stating the discovery and confiscation of a cache of weapons in the Matareya area in Cairo that reportedly belonged to the armed cell involved in the Amiriya raid. The cache contained a quantity of ammunition, explosives and light weapons. Further details of the alleged plot are unknown.
Due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the ban on public gatherings and mass prayers, the likelihood of high-risk militant attacks diminishes substantially. However, the country’s diverted priority on combating the spread of COVID-19, can likely create an opportunistic window for militant groups to attempt to launch attacks either on civilians or state authorities during these days. As a result, ICESERVE24 urges its clients to remain vigilant at all times when on the move.
Egyptian authorities assure they are on high alert to address militant threats that may occur during the pandemic. During this time, soft targets for attacks include security and army checkpoints, hospitals, testing centres and metro stations.
Previous deadly attacks have taken place in Egypt during Ramadan. On May 26, 2017, ISIS militants killed at least 28 Coptic Christians and wounded dozens more during an armed attack on a bus travelling to a monastery in Minya governorate. Days later, three army officers were killed in an improvised explosive device (IED) explosion in the Bahariya Oasis, Giza, while a roadside bomb struck a police vehicle in Maadi, Cairo, wounding four police officers on June 18 of the same year.
Last year, the following incidents occurred during Ramadan:
• Ansar Al-Islam claimed responsibility for targeting an oil and gas storage facility in the Dahshour area of Giza, with the use of a rocket-propelled grenade (RGB) and an IED attack attack on a vehicle with Assiut security director aboard. • An IED planted on the side of the road hit a tourist bus near the Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza governorate injuring at least 17 people.
On April 21, the Minister of Endowments, Muhammad Mukhtar Juma, said during an interview that only the call to prayers through the loudspeakers of the mosques will be allowed during Ramadan, clarifying that the Quran will not be broadcasted as well as the Maghrib prayers. Similarly, the hanging of decorations and other means of celebration inside mosques and residential areas is forbidden, and violators will be held accountable. Egyptians on social media have called for the minister to be dismissed with the hashtag # اقالة_وزير_الاوقاف [#SackEndowmentMinister] used several thousand times.
The risk of civil unrest as a result of state authorities clamping down on lockdown violators and worshippers is unlikely, however, it is possible throughout Ramadan. While the ban on social gatherings and mass prayers in observance of Ramadan can likely cause small-scale and isolated instances of demonstrations, it is unlikely to cause a widespread wave of unrest. ICESERVE24 has observed that the likelihood of civil unrest will emanate from socioeconomic grievances and the pressure that the lockdown places on workers of the informal sector and low-income communities. ICESERVE24 will continue to monitor any potential triggers.
INTERNATIONAL CALLS FOR ATTACKS DUE TO COVID-19 INSTABILITY
Several British outlets have reported that counter-terror services are on alert after militants have called for attacks on local hospitals and other “vulnerable places.” Reportedly, National Health Service (NHS) staff is receiving security advice, as intelligence agencies are concerned that Salafist groups will exploit the instability and mental vulnerability derived from the COVID-19 pandemic to radicalise new recruits and encourage lone-wolf attacks. ISIS-affiliate media call on supporters to carry out attacks in the West during the COVID-19 pandemic
When the COVID-19 began spreading in Europe in March, ISIS encouraged healthy supporters to refrain from travelling “to the land of the pandemic,” and infected supporters to remain in Europe. Evident from recent publications, Salafist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda present the spread of COVID-19 as an opportunity to be exploited as state authorities are busy trying to curb the virus, economies are highly affected, health systems are overwhelmed and security forces are tasked to enforce the implementation of lockdown measures. As a result, these groups call for supporters to carry out attacks by any means against non-Muslims during this time, while at the same time they urge their members to protect themselves from the virus and acknowledge that the spread of the virus is facilitated due to the “interconnection of the world.”
Data derived from ISIS’ claims of responsibility globally in the past three months suggest that April has recorded more claims than the two months before. The evidence highlights that the group has exploited the COVID-19 induced crisis that has caused social, security, financial and political disruptions. Iraq and Syria have been the countries witnessing the majority of those attacks, with Iraq experiencing a notable increase in numbers in April. ISLAMOPHOBI
A Muslims observing Ramadan abroad have been accused by right-wing voices in the United Kingdom (UK), including tabloid writer Andrew Pierce, that they will drive up the number of COVID-19 cases during Ramadan.
• Remain vigilant and aware, with heightened situational awareness, especially on the days leading up to Eid El-Fitr. • Anticipate heavy security presence and checkpoints on main roads and in public spaces to ensure the enforcement of the restrictive measures in place.
• Frequently clean hands by applying an alcohol-based hand rub or washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. • Wearing a mask when in public is advisable. • When coughing and sneezing, cover mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue; if used, throw the tissue away immediately and wash hands. • If experiencing a fever, cough, difficulty breathing or any other symptoms suggestive of respiratory illness, including pneumonia, call emergency services before going to the doctor or hospital to prevent the potential spread of the disease.