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Syria: Ramadan Brings Arab Spring Crackdowns

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The Arab Spring uprisings that have seemed to stall under an oppressive Arab summer may be about to get a burst of fresh energy with the arrival of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins today.

"It's going to be a very hot month," said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a close observer of the Arab uprisings. "The Syrian opposition is really hoping to use Ramadan to mobilize their supporters and intensify their activities against the regime."

In Syria, activists have been calling for "a month of 30 Fridays," referring to the traditional day of prayer -- and the day during which most large protest gatherings have taken place.

The themes of Ramadan -- personal commitment, purity, sacrifice -- are especially conducive to democratic protests, Hamid said.

"Ramadan provides a powerful symbolism of unique common purpose. It's even more important in Syria where the regime is threatening to massacre you. It gives people the kind of encouragement they need to go forward even in the face of such risk."

A government crackdown in the Syrian town of Hama over the weekend -- where upwards of 100 people were killed when government security forces rolled into town in tanks and fired machine guns, according to reports -- may be just a hint of the peremptory crackdown that embattled regimes across the region are undertaking.

The United States strongly rebuked the weekend's attacks -- what some have dubbed the "Ramadan massacre" -- with the press attache at the US Embassy in Damascus, J.J. Harder, calling the actions "full-on warfare by the Syrian government against its own people."

"There is one big armed gang in Syria, and it's named the Syrian government," Harder told the BBC over the weekend. "That is the armed gang that's pillaging its own cities, that's the armed gang that is striking terror into the hearts of a lot of these people out there who just want to peacefully protest."

President Barack Obama called the reports "horrifying" in a statement on Sunday.

In Egypt, where protest gatherings in Cairo's Tahrir Square have rarely ceased since the downfall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, the new military leadership of the country kicked off Ramadan this morning by sweeping the square of all remaining demonstrators.

Some groups of youth leaders in Egypt have said that they might suspend sit-ins in Tahrir during Ramadan, calling the protest technique "a means, and not a goal."

But other reports indicated that protesters intend to turn the square into a nightly venue for speeches and concerts to celebrate the progress made over the past six months and maintain the spirit of democratic reform and popular protest.

The first week of the month in Egypt is expected to be especially contentious because Mubarak is due in court on Wednesday to face charges of corruption stemming from his 30 years in power.