His journey since has tracked the shifting moods of an upheaval that toppled President Hosni Mubarak but remains unfinished. Last week, he found himself in Tahrir Square, with men young and old, secular and religious, lobbing stones in clashes with riot police — a role he had always vowed to avoid.
Tolba is a Salafist, an adherent of an ultraconservative view of Islam that is the norm in Saudi Arabia and has a following in several Muslim countries. Broadly, Salafists believe that Muslims should strictly conform to the teachings of the Koran and emulate the austere lifestyle of the prophet Muhammad. They shun alcohol and tobacco, and they believe that women should wear veils and niqabs, the black cloth that covers the face below the eyes.
Pariahs under the secular, autocratic, military-backed governments that ruled Egypt for 60 years, Salafists have emerged publicly in recent months in numbers that have startled and frightened liberal Egyptians. But Tolba believes that winning wider acceptance will require building greater trust.
“You have a very good product and a terrible salesman,” Tolba said of the challenge facing Salafists.
Whether Islamists can seize the moment, he believes, will depend on their ability to dispel the notion that most dogmatic Muslims are militant troglodytes who want to take over the government and impose strict moral codes on this nation of 82 million.
At stake, he believes, is whether Islamists will manage to reinsert themselves into mainstream Egyptian society without building popular support for a new crackdown by the authorities. A first test will come this week with Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections.
Into the public eye
As the son of well-off secular parents, Tolba is better suited than most to narrow the gap between liberals and Islamists — groups that have for decades been wary of one another.
Salafists say at least a few million Egyptians follow their brand of Islam, but estimates vary because for decades many have taken pains to conceal their adherence to the movement. Salafists tend to be more dogmatic than members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist movement, but the two movements support similar political goals: policies that are more closely in line with Islamic law. (Both are made up of Sunni Muslims, divided by a centuries-old schism from the Shiite branch of Islam dominant in Iraq and Iran.)
When Tolba sat down at a Costa Coffee shop in Cairo that day in late February, the plainclothes state security agents who hassled bearded men under Mubarak’s regime were nowhere in sight. But stares from fellow patrons in skinny jeans or suits made him feel unwelcome.