The story Mohammad Tolba starts to tell could also be the beginning of an interesting joke: 40 Americans are invited to the home of an Egyptian Salafist, an ultra-orthodox Muslim…
Tolba, the Salafist in the story, grins broadly when he recalls the close encounter. Tolba is very aware of his image – as a beard-boasting radical Islamist full of hatred against western society. But this Salafi stirs his cappuccino carefully, and has 114,000 fans on Facebook.
Tolba is the founder of the Salafyo Costa, a new group of Egyptian Salafis who named themselves after their meeting place: Costa Coffee. The Cairo branch of this international chain, where Tolba is describing his afternoon with the Americans, has the standard features of the modern coffee bars that have popped up in cities all over the world. Dark brown tables, red shaded lamps, and pictures of roasted coffee beans on the walls – occupied by a smart-phone staring audience.
While Tolba laughs and says the Americans were surprised that he was actually a human being, pop-star Anastacia sings ‘You can’t escape my love’ over the speakers. It is not the kind of place where you would expect to find a Salafist – who are generally opposed to any kind of music.
The Salafist movement is known for their strict interpretation of Islam. Salafis are an incoherent and undefined group of ultra-orthodox Muslims, who have in common that they strive to emulate the way the prophet Muhammed and his early followers lived. The most striking feature of Salafi men is their untrimmed and wildly grown beards –Tolba’s beard has hints of grey. Salafi women mostly wear the niqab.
For decades, the Salafis were suppressed in Egypt. The Mubarak regime not only forced them to abstain from politics, but also enforced heavy control and constant monitoring by the security. All Salafis were seen as being part of the minority group of jihadi Salafis who justify armed attacks on civilians.
Tolba, who grew up in a wealthy family and works as a manager for an IT-company, has been arrested 22 times during Mubarak’s reign. “If you had a beard, you were a terrorist,” he says. Salafis were also prevented from travelling to tourist resorts in Egypt such as Hurghada or Sharm El Sheikh, and the gates of army-owned compounds carried signs saying ‘Forbidden to Salafis.’ “I was treated as a second-class citizen”, says Tolba.
The isolation and suppression of Salafis led to radicalisation of some of the groups. “It created elements of aggression,” explains Tolba. In the past few months, there have been several incidents of churches being attacked or burnt by Salafists. Violent clashes between Salafis and Christians in Egyptian cities have also occurred, fueled by radical local sheikhs. And some radical Salafist groups are known for trying to force their way of living upon other parts of society.
According to Tolba, the long suppression and isolation also made the Salafis reluctant to join the Egyptian revolution that started on 25 January 2011 and led, 18 days later, to the end of the 30-year rule of president Hosni Mubarak. Mohamed El-Bahrawi, one of the co-founders of the Salafyo Costa, joined the revolution from the beginning. Tolba says he followed El-Bahrawi at the end of the revolution to the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – which was still much earlier than the majority of Salafis in Egypt.
(In Cairo SPIEGEL also spoke with the Salafist group Salfyo Costa at the cafe where they began. “The Egyptians aren`t the least bit religious,” said member Mohammed Tolba. “They just want to get into paradise, despite their sins, which is why they voted for the Salafists=)
When the Egyptian revolution stalled in the weeks after the ousting of Mubarak, with military rule still in place and division among the protestors widening, Tolba and his friends founded the Salafyo Costa. “We wanted to keep the unifying spirit of Tahrir alive”, says Tolba. He explains the new movement also wanted to fight the misconceptions that all Salafis are aggressively religious and have a mentality that dates back to the middle ages.
Co-founder Mohamed El-Bahrawi says over his cappuccino that the Salafyo Costa strive to focus on things all Egyptians have in common. The organisation has Coptic Christians, socialists and members of the rival Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood in its ranks.
One of the first things the newly formed group did was create a Facebook page and uploaded a short video to YouTube. The Facebook page features provocative and humorous caricatures of Salafis, and the video made fun of the divisions in Egyptian society.
The video went viral, and after national TV reported about the group, their popularity went through the roof. At the time of writing, they have 114,000 fans on Facebook, and over 20,000 members of the private Salafyo Costa group.
“During the revolution, some Salafis mingled with others in Tahrir”, says Egyptian journalist Abd-elrahman Youssef, an expert on religion in Egyptian society. Youssef says that the protests led to integration. “The more interaction the more moderate people become.” Tolba says heprefers the word ‘open-minded’. But Tolba emphasises that he is not liberal. He emphasizes that he is a Salafist with very strict religious beliefs. He is opposed to music for instance, but tolerates it for the sake of good coffee.
Tolba and his cinnamon-latte-Salafis have faced severe criticism from more traditional Salafis and prominent sheikhs. “I have been heavily insulted in text messages and in every post on our Facebook page for reaching out to others”, he says.
But reaching out is the mission of the Salafyo Costa. Tolba, the friendly face of Salafism in Egypt, stresses that he thinks the focus in Egyptian society should be on improving Egyptian society, not on the various differences between the different groups. Tolba: “More than than hundred young people were killed after a football match in Port Said, but nobody was convicted. Hundreds of people died in the revolution, and nobody was sent to jail for that either. 40 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line. People are standing in queues for bread. That is what we have to focus on.”
Editor by Wilhelmina.
Dolf de Groot, The Netherlands
Mohammad Mansour, Egypt
Samaa Hany, Egypt
Produced during the Euro-Mediterranean Academy for Young Journalists