Salafism and coffee
Salonaz Sami finds out about extremism the Costa way
"Ihna dayman illy ben-haseb al-masharib," or "we are the ones paying for your drinks," is the slogan of Salafyo Costa (Costa's Salafis), who thought this was only fair since they were always being blamed for others' shortcomings. Founded by two brothers, Ezzat and Mohamed Tolba, who used to frequent the famous Costa Coffee outlet in Mohandessin, Salafyo Costa is a web-based forum that aims to promote understanding with others and works on finding common ground for everyone to co-exist. Prior to the January Revolution, Mohamed, the conservative Salafi and Ezzat the avant-garde liberal had major issues. "It was unlikely for us to even sit at the same table," Mohamed Tolba, co-founder of the group told Al-Ahram Weekly. However, following the revolution, things changed. "Through interacting together we discovered that all the fears and doubts we had about each other were unfounded and that our similarities were more than the differences," he said.
"Do you guys sit in Costa" was the question behind the group's name, asked by a co-worker when her bearded colleague suggested going to Costa for coffee between meetings. And it wasn't just that female co-worker. "People would look at us in bafflement because they had a perception that Salafis don't drink coffee in such places," Tolba explained. "It's what I call visual abuse. It's sad but funny," he added.
The 33-year-old sales manager and his friends could have had no idea when they set up the group that one year later it would have more than 20,000 members and 116,000 fans, and counting. In a survey posted on their website Salafyocosta.com, out of 332 people who voted, 88.6 per cent thought that the group's idea was important, 7.2 per cent thought it was somewhat important, and only 4.2 per cent deemed it trivial.
For their logo, the group chose to adapt the Costa Coffee logo and replace the three coffee beans with a picture of a bearded man staring into the distance. One wonders how the British multinational company that owns Costa Coffee, the second-largest café chain in the world, feels about this. The group used their slogan for the first time on 27 May 2011, Egypt's second "Friday of Anger".
"The ousted former regime used to hold Salafis accountable for all the negative things going on in society. After the revolution, we discovered that some people still insisted on doing the same thing," explained Walid Mustafa, co-founder of the group, in an interview on the Al-Arabiya News Channel. The group was created following the March 2011 constitutional amendments, which showed the doubts liberals and Salafis entertained with regard to each other.
The group first made the headlines when it produced a 12-minute video entitled Ayna Wedni? or "where's my ear?" which was a hit on Youtube with more than 83,000 views. The video's name refers to a notorious hate crime that took place in Qena in Upper Egypt, during which a group of Salafis kidnapped a Christian man, cut off his ear and set his car on fire, allegedly for renting a flat to prostitutes.
To reinforce the importance of co-existence and accepting others, Tolba and his brother Ezzat chose humour to get their message across. Thus, the Youtube video touches on the misconceptions and doubts people may have about others through the story of Walid, a conservative Salafi, and Ezzat, a liberal, and how they see each other. It also shows divisions among the Salafis over joining the January protests.
"They -- Salafyo Costa -- are trying to show us how to change the way we see the other and accept each other for what we are," Mohamed Samir wrote in a comment on the video's Youtube page. "Why do we always centre our attention on our differences rather than focussing on what we have in common," Samir wondered.
Ayna Mahali? or "where's my shop?" is the group's second video, also directed by Ezzat Tolba. Using the same sense of humour, this film, shot in Ezbet Al-Haggana, shows a fight between people of different religious, social and political backgrounds over the ownership of a store. The store is used as a metaphor for Egypt after the revolution, thus emphasising the importance of everyone working together for what is best for the country. Their latest addition is a movie titled Ayna Batikhty? "where is my watermelon", due to be released next week. The movie talks about how people struggle to make ends meet by telling the story of a young Salafi who tries desperately to protect his watermelon, the only food item he has to offer to his family.
The group is indeed working hand-in-hand with Egyptians from all walks of life, whether liberals, socialists or Christians. "They are trying to change preconceived ideas of Salafis and Salafism in Egypt in an innovative way based on religion and the spirit of the 25 January Revolution. And they are successfully proving that we can all co-exist," one member of the leftist Al-Tagammu Party said at a joint Salafyo Costa meeting.
"It's just like people who work in multinational companies: they deal with all kinds of nationalities and all sorts of different beliefs, but they manage to work together with one thing in mind, which is to work on the project in hand in the best way they can."
To prove the point, following the sectarian violence in Qena in March 2011, the group organised a football match between Salafis and Christians that ended in a 6-6 draw. Commentating on the match was physician and TV presenter Bassem Youssef. Salafyo Costa is also very active on the ground in various charitable projects from medical caravans to educational seminars. The idea is to implement dialogue rather than just talk about it.
Their latest is a group of seminars that they hold in various cities, titled Ana mesh kharouf, or "I am not a sheep."
"We believe that if we educate Egyptians about their rights and choices, things will definitely change. They will go after those rights and fight for them," he said.
"And this is the difference between us and those who call themselves the elite," he added. "We are not about slogans and headlines but about working with real people in real life."
Another project of the group is an initiative called Dah mesh tabei, or "this is not normal," in which they discuss different social problems that people deal with on a daily basis and consider normal while in fact they are not. "Waiting for hours on a line for a loaf of bread or a gas cylinder is not normal. Not being able to find a hospital bed for your sick child is not normal," Tolba said. "These are basic rights that we shouldn't have to fight for."
When the group was accused of having a hidden agenda by some opponents, it came up with another controversial slogan: "Salafyo Costa mish betaa intikhabat, Salafyo Costa bygmaa kul al-etghat," or "Salafyo Costa is not interested in the elections, it is interested in dialogue."
The founders of the group are all professionals in their early 30s, and they are not affiliated to any political or religious party. The group posted a recent statement on their website stating that the "members of Salafyo Costa come from all political and religious backgrounds, and they condemn the fact that those who were considered pillars of the former regime are now running for the presidency in the elections."
"They should be prosecuted for their role in all the former regime's crimes," the statement added, even as the group has declined to support any of the candidates.
"We boycotted both the presidential and parliamentary elections," said Tolba, "because we lack the needed components of a real democratic election process." According to Tolba, those components include real candidates, voters, supervisors and a head for the entire process. "In our case, however, the head of the process is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which has proved over and over again its incompetence to run the country, not to mention the elections," Tolba said. "And those who supervise the process are the same," he added. "But most importantly the candidates are the same."
"There is no doubt that what these guys are doing is different and innovative," one observer, Nihal Sherif, told the Weekly. "They use non-traditional methods to deliver their message, and they are successfully getting through to the masses."
"The thing that attracted me the most was their incredible sense of humour and the way they make fun of themselves," she said. "And although I am not a member, I follow their activities passionately." The group's site contains lively discussions of current political and social events, and it also discusses how to correct the misperceptions people may have about Salafis. Politically themed videos are posted every now and then, as well as some more humorous ones.
Conservative Salafis attempt to adhere strictly to the lifestyle of the Prophet Mohamed's early companions, and so does Salafyo Costa, though in its own unique way. Perhaps this is why some prominent Salafi preachers, such as Sheikh Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, have not yet endorsed Salafyo Costa. In an interview aired on Al-Nas TV, Abdel-Maqsoud described Tolba as being "daring and ignorant", adding that the group had made too many compromises in order to gain supporters.
"This way, they will end up with nothing," Abdel-Maqsoud said. Tolba, however, refused to comment on what Abdel-Maqsoud said, explaining that he didn't even see the video. "Sheikh Abdel-Maqsoud is one of the best in Islamic jurisprudence and I respect him deeply," said Tolba. "But that doesn't mean that I have to agree with his political opinions," he added.
The group is about to form a first of its kind social rather than political party, "one that aims at solving social problems like education, health and unemployment," Tolba explained. "We will be using politics to help us with those social issues."