Divide between Islamists, liberals threatens to splinter Egypt revolution

November 25, 2011

Days after Egyptians drove their longtime president from power in February, Mohammad Tolba ordered a latte at an upscale coffeehouse and waited to see whether his scraggly beard was still radioactive in the new Egypt.

He got a grudging welcome, and that was enough to prod the 32-year-old information technology executive — a conservative Islamist with a look that many associate with extremism — into an effort to bridge a divide that threatens to splinter the Egyptian revolution.

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.

“The guy serving me coffee and the other guests were feeling uncomfortable, and they were looking at me in a very bad way,” Tolba said. “I started talking to people and making jokes.”

Some warmed up to him, which planted the seed for what became known as Salafyo Costa, or the Costa Salafis. Tolba and some friends created a Facebook page to encourage Egyptians of all backgrounds to have coffee with Salafists. It soon spun into a thousands-strong lively online forum for debate over politics, foreign policy and religion.

Tolba said he believes that a large number of Egyptians will gravitate toward Salafism now that Islamists have greater freedoms, but he insists that such a trend ought to happen organically rather than by force.

“You should not enforce teachings on others,” he said at a Costa Coffee one afternoon this summer. “Let the crowds decide what they want. At the end of the day, we will accept what the people say.”

As Salafyo Costa gained popularity, Tolba adapted the logo of the British coffee chain, which has three coffee beans, to depict a bearded man. He made a short video meant as a metaphor for the transition on which Egypt was about to embark.

In the clip, five men representing different classes of Egyptian society show up to claim ownership of a small shop in a rundown Cairo neighborhood. The men initially quarrel over who is the legitimate owner but agree to work together after they realize the shop is in ruins.

That was what Egyptians did during the 18-day revolt that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11. Soon after the ouster of their common enemy, societal divisions were exposed. In some cases, violence erupted, most poignantly in a spate of deadly clashes between Salafists and Coptic Christians.

“All parties were scared of each other, until they started working toward one goal,” Tolba said. “We are trying to bring the spirit of Tahrir Square from the revolution back.”

‘Real democracy is in Islam’

Tahrir has often served as neutral ground for debating the role of Islam in post-revolutionary Egypt. In July, Tolba set up a tent in the square, along with many others who had participated in the revolt. On a sweltering evening, bearded men and women in niqabs talked politics.

Shimaa Mahmoud, 33, a teacher who has been a Salafist for 11 years, said she was looking forward to being governed by a parliament dominated by Islamists.

“People suffered a long time under the government,” she said. “Now it’s time to taste real democracy. Real democracy is in Islam.”

Rageh Abou Khatwa, 31, another relatively recent convert to Salafism, said there is virtually no talk about militancy among people of his generation. Pointing to a group of older bearded men from the Gamaa Islamiya, which waged a violent campaign against the Egyptian government in the 1980s and 1990s, he said the group represented a closed chapter in Egyptian history.

“Using violence did not achieve anything,” he said. “Nobody is calling for this type of violence anymore.”

Days later, tens of thousands of Islamists from across the country streamed into Tahrir Square for a demonstration to decry what Islamist groups called an attempt by the military and liberal leaders to legally enshrine secular principles before elections are held. Some started waving the black flag associated with violent jihad, commonly used by al-Qaeda.

“What the hell are you doing?” Tolba demanded. “This is not Afghanistan. Why are you holding these flags?”

One of the men looked confused and replied that he had been asked to wave it, Tolba said.

As the sun rose, massive crowds began chanting: “The people want Islamic law!” A vendor sold photographs of slain al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.

Fuming, Tolba left the square.

“All of us are feeling so down,” he said a few days later. “We look like the guys that came, but they don’t represent us.”

It wasn’t the only time Tolba has felt on the outside looking in. Several traditional Salafists refused to meet with him, thinking his movement was flippant and offensive to the old guard. Although many Christians joined the group, some remain wary of all Salafists, such as the members of a church who agreed to let him speak at a service, only to cancel at the last minute.

A spiritual awakening

Tolba was not born into a Salafist family. During his late teens and early 20s, he said, he sometimes drank and partied heavily. He met his wife, Doaa Yehia, 26, in 2000 at a poetry club. He didn’t have a beard then. She wore a veil but not a niqab. When a close mutual friend was killed in a car accident, the two experienced a spiritual awakening and gradually became Salafists.

Tolba said he was shaken and saddened by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which occurred shortly after he became a Salafist but had no bearing on his transformation. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that were launched in response, however, have hardened his views toward the West. Attacks against American soldiers fighting in foreign lands, he said, are justified.

Soon after his first beard grew out, Tolba said, he was stopped at police checkpoints and airports and interrogated about his faith. He was asked which mosques he prayed at and which clerics he looked up to. Feeling ostracized, he took a job in Sudan.

“They were treating me like a monster,” he said, referring to authorities in Egypt.

Also demonized was his favorite Salafist cleric, Mohamed Abdel Maksoud.

Maksoud was arrested several times under Mubarak’s regime because he often criticized the government in his sermons. When the cleric was not incarcerated, his supporters would organize quick, clandestine prayers, announcing the location via text message 30 minutes in advance.

On a recent Friday morning in 6th of October City, a suburb of Cairo, Maksoud officiated at a large mosque that was so full some attendees had to pray outside. As the gray-bearded, limping cleric departed, devotees crowded around, trying to kiss his hand.

Maksoud said Egypt must be ruled in a way consistent with sharia law. Although sharia has long been a bedrock of the Egyptian constitution, he said, the government for decades has largely ignored it. As an example, he said, wearing the veil should be mandatory for women.

Alcohol, he added, should not be consumed in public venues. “Egyptian people love Islam, and they are calling for Islam,” he said.

With every rock, hope

The prospect that well-organized Islamist parties could dominate politics is widely believed to have been the main reason Egypt’s military chiefs have been reluctant to cede power to elected officials. The lengthy transition time frame they proposed, which would have put off presidential elections until at least 2013, was one of the catalysts of fresh protests that began more than a week ago and have plunged the country into new chaos.

Tolba was among a small group of protesters attempting to set up a permanent camp in Tahrir last week when riot police tried to dislodge them using tear gas and rubber-coated bullets. For the first time in his life, Tolba said, he felt compelled to respond violently.

Along with others, both liberals and Islamists, he charged toward the line of policemen, armed only with stones. Despite the hail of birdshot and clouds of tear gas, the feeling was cathartic, Tolba said.

“It was very spiritual, very inspiring,” Tolba said afterward. “Every time I went to the front lines, I was recalling every incident of injustice. With every rock, I was hoping for a better future for my children.”

A day later, when security forces charged into the square, Tolba was among those beaten with clubs. He was left for dead in a pile of corpses and wounded people near a travel agency. Next to him was a young, unveiled woman who he thinks died.

Before losing consciousness, he said, the woman asked a policeman dragging a corpse: “Aren’t you Egyptian, too?”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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