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Maurice Chammah Headshot

After Media Success, a Young Salafi Movement Looks to Politics

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Under a pavilion at Al Azhar Park, an uncommonly clean swath of grass and palm trees overlooking the bustle of Islamic Cairo, a group of young beaded men and modestly dressed women were having a debate. "Just being on Facebook is not enough," one said. "We need a board of directors," another agreed. "We need experts!"

A friend had invited me to meet Salafyo Costa, the young organization cheekily named after the international coffee chain where they hang out. They count themselves among the Salafis, the ultraconservative religious movement which surprised liberal Egyptians and many in the U.S. when it took roughly a quarter of the parliamentary vote in recent rounds of elections. The Salafi movement and the Nour party, its biggest political arm, are believed to be among the most uncompromising when it comes to instituting Islamic law. Reports that they hope to ban bikinis and alcohol have pervaded local and international newspapers, making liberals and Westerners nervous while appealing to a broad base of lower class Egyptians.

Since their initial electoral victories, Salafi leaders, including those of the Nour party, have struggled to assure their competitors that they will not seek to radically alter Egyptian society. On Monday, they made public statements reassuring that they had no part in a new online group calling itself the "Committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice in Egypt," after the notoriously extreme agency in Saudi Arabia.

As these tensions grew over the past year, Salafyo Costa emerged as a media darling, the open-minded, smiling face of the Salafi movement, as well as a leader in dialogue between different segments of Egyptian society. "Our goal," organizer Muhammad Tolba explained to the group gathered at the park, "is not political. It is to make Egypt like koshary," referring to the Egyptian dish of lentils, pasta, rice, onions and tomato sauce in which the flavors are "different but together."

The metaphor was cute, but meant seriously. As disillusionment spreads among the protest movement, you often hear these days the idea that Islamists supported the revolution, only to leave it when offered support by the military council in the form of legitimized electoral wins. Last week, well-known blogger Sandmonkey went so far as to suggest that the military was helping the Salafi parties get votes in order to scare secular and Christian Egyptians into supporting military rule. In this moment of increasing division, amongst recognition that the revolution is floundering, Salafyo Costa's might be able to serve as a mediator between groups with deep ideological divisions but potentially massive strength in cooperation.

During the uprisings in January, Tolba and Walid Mustafa, the group's other co-founder, brought a banner with their name, Salafyo Costa, and a large symbol depicting a bearded face in the coffee chain's logo. "We agreed, we have to participate, even if they don't want us in Tahrir," Tolba said. "But people took an interest, so the media started to focus on us."

The coverage swiftly picked up and carried the small band of friends from local English news sources Al Masry Al Youm, Daily News Egypt, Al Ahram, and Al Akhbar to international attention in Foreign Policy, the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books and the L.A. Times.

Salafyo Costa's success can in many ways be attributed to Tolba himself, an IT consultant whose effortless charisma and sense of humor has brought him interviews with numerous Western journalists. In every article, Tolba's sly sense of humor shines, and I got a taste that afternoon. As the group discussed possible political avenues, he dramatically skipped over one woman wearing a full niqab covering her face. "We have issues with women," he announced, looking at me and waiting for a smile. I knew the rest of the women present had spoken already and he was just kidding, so I obliged, and he quieted down for her.

Like many groups who participated in the January uprisings, Salafyo Costa attracted followers online through Facebook and Youtube before having a real following in the streets. A YouTube video uploaded in the spring called "Where is my ear?" made light of the divisions between conservatives and liberals in Egypt. By August, their Facebook group had 9,000 members. Today it has over 13,000.

Among those members are not only Muslim conservatives, but Christians and liberals attracted to the group's open-minded attitude. While listening to Tolba explain the history of the group, a young Christian man and woman appeared and were greeted warmly. "I was their enemy," said Mina, a member of Egypt's Coptic Christian minority who joined the group on Facebook in order to criticize them after a church-bombing flared inter-religious tensions.

They engaged Mina in dialogue online, and eventually he joined the group. "Once I started to understand them," he continued, "people in my own community stopped understanding me. In my church people started to say I was an infidel." Still, Mina persisted and now he is good friends with the group's leaders, a clean-shaven standout among the big beards.

This huge burst of media coverage throughout the summer has given Salafyo Costa an inflated sense of influence. Now, as the political tide in Egypt is turning from protests in Tahrir to the realm of elections, parties, and high-level negotiations, the group is deciding how to make the organization more official, whether as an NGO, a party, or something more unique.

In the meantime, they have been criticized by traditional Salafi groups for not grounding their actions in the pronouncements of respected sheikhs. Parties sought their support, but they knew that signing on would dilute their appeal. "They asked me to choose Nour or Freedom and Justice," Tolba said, referencing the two main Islamic parties, "and I chose a chipsy," a popular sandwich.

Everyone chuckled, and then the tone turned more serious. "What is the objective, the purpose of this group?" asked Seif, another leader who sports a prayer-mark on his forehead and peppers his Arabic with English words.

Tolba decided to allow each person in attendance three minutes to express their hopes for Salafyo Costa and everyone had their own angle. "We can't be a lobby," one woman said. "We all have different ideas." "Yes, and we fight so much when we talk about politics," another agreed.

"We should be a charity that raises political awareness without pushing a particular party," another older veiled woman responded.

"I'm just happy with the charity work we're doing," said another.

"Maybe we can have a case by case vote before we participate in anything political," Tolba suggested.

Their dilemma is represented by their name, which attracts attention due to its clever humor, but leads many to see the group as less than serious. Tolba's sense of humor also helped put off the real decisions about core beliefs. After all, it's a lot easier to make fun of misconceptions than to decide policy.

The debate went on through the afternoon, as everyone pitched their ideas. It was extremely heartening, at a time when it seems clear the revolution is struggling to stay afloat, to see activists wide-eyed about all the possibilities. When too many people spoke at one time, a woman held her hands in a T-shape, apparently the universal gesture for "Time Out!" They all agreed that Salafyo Costa had been successful as a cultural bridge between different elements of Egyptian society, and it was just a matter of formalizing the group without losing that spark.

"The media made this movement," Tolba asserted. "But we need more people on the ground."

Eventually, the discussion turned to whether it would be possible to support individual candidates while also being an educational NGO. Suddenly, Tolba turned to me and asked "Do groups do this in the U.S.?"

Ripped out of my observing role, I floundered and tried to think of an example. The only group that sprang to mind was J Street, the left of center Jewish lobbying group which oversees both an "Education fund" and a political action committee, under two different tax headings.

I began to tell them about J Street, having no idea how such things work in Egypt, and Seif stopped me. "Can't you think of one that isn't Jewish?" he asked, with a big, wily smile. "Well, uh, it's just an example..." I stuttered. He interrupted, "I'm just kidding. What's it called? J Street?"

He motioned a J in the air, and wrote the name down. "I'll look it up on Google later," he said.